RBC Heritage

Unusual year takes loud turn for Arnold Palmer’s grandson

Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer, shakes hands with one of the two cannoneers before honoring his late grandfather during the opening ceremony of the 49th RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Monday morning at the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island S.C.
Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer, shakes hands with one of the two cannoneers before honoring his late grandfather during the opening ceremony of the 49th RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Monday morning at the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island S.C. dearley@islandpacket.com

Sam Saunders was almost late for his tee time, so to speak. And then he needed a little lesson.

Arnold Palmer’s grandson watched closely as the men who fire the cannon during opening ceremonies for the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing showed him where to touch the flame and how far to stand away.

Saunders did a practice maneuver, then it was time to go live.

BOOM!!

Success. For you, granddad.

Some remembrances are somber, others poignant. Ever larger than life, you have to think Palmer would have gotten a kick out of the big noise.

“That was pretty neat,” Saunders said, joking that maybe he should make it part of his tournament routine.

“I’m going to have to bring a little personal cannon and start every week like that. Make my entrance with a big boom.”

Monday provided an unusual tribute, the latest offering in what has been an unusual year for Saunders.

Certainly, he’s long been accustomed to living as Arnie’s grandson. It was more than a decade ago that he first hit the big stage — not as a player, but as Palmer’s caddie.

It was there in 2004 that Palmer hit perhaps his last memorable shot — driver off the deck at Bay Hill’s treacherous 18th, taking a path left of the “Devil’s Bathtub” and scooting up onto the green.

As the ball curled toward the flagstick, Palmer laughed and reached back and gave 16-year-old Sam a little nudge. It’s now a staple of the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s highlight history. It’s almost certainly on YouTube somewhere.

But this is different. Since Palmer’s passing last September, Saunders has emerged as the face of the legacy. Wherever he’s entered, fans are compelled to share their Palmer stories. Tournament officials, like the RBC Heritage, want to pay tribute.

“Every tournament has done so many good tributes,” he said.

Bay Hill had to be the toughest. It’s the tournament that Arnie built, turning the old Florida Citrus Open into a prime stop. Palmer fell in love with Bay Hill upon his first experience, eventually buying the place and making it his winter base.

Last month marked the first Arnold Palmer Invitational without its namesake in that familiar golf cart. And though tournament organizers enlisted such friends as Peter Jacobsen, Curtis Strange and Annika Sorenstam to share official host duties, everyone naturally gravitated to Saunders.

“It was a little more than I had anticipated, but in a good way,” he said.

“If I had known that I was going to be somewhat of a host — I don’t even want to use that word — but I don’t think I would have been very comfortable with it. I would have felt very out of place. But because it happened naturally, I think it worked.”

Call it an extended celebration of a life well played. And sometimes, Saunders has to check himself that his granddad isn’t a call away. He recalled one instance as he drove home from a recent event.

“I was playing good golf, but I wanted to ask him a question about something,” Saunders said. “I almost went to my pocket. Then it’s kind of the realization — oh, he’s not there.”

Nor, by the way, is Saunders’ other grandfather. Bob Saunders — an encouraging sort who kept Saunders upbeat — passed away just weeks after Palmer, leaving him without the two men he leaned on most in his golf life.

“I think about them and I know exactly what they would have said to my question,” he said. “So I’m really glad I got to learn from them and soak in as much knowledge as I could.”

So shed no tears. Now, though, it’s time for Saunders to work on his own personal tribute.

He’s out here because he can play a little bit himself. And he wants to stay. After all, isn’t that the best way to uphold Palmer’s memory?

“The best I can do is what my granddad did — be out here and playing good golf,” he said.

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain

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