ORLANDO—Driver off the deck. Pure Arnold Palmer.
The last full swing that the late Palmer made in his own event—known at the time as the Bay Hill Invitational, before the PGA Tout got the bright and very proper idea of renaming it after the legendary host—was struck March 19, 2004. It matters not that he shot a second-round 79 or that he missed the cut by several strokes.
It was all about the moment. And Arnold Palmer loved to be in the moment.
“I get asked about that shot probably more than almost anything else when it comes to my grandfather,” said Sam Saunders, who is playing in this event at his former home course for the eighth time and serving as the de facto playing host.
Sixteen years old at the time and soon on his way to winning the Bay Hill club championship, Saunders saddled up as his grandfather’s caddie that week. Palmer was 74 and celebrating his 50th year in golf. Not only did he elect to end his role as a player in his own event, but a few weeks later he competed in his 50th and final Masters.
Saunders helped recreate the situation for Sky Sports last Monday at the signature par-4 18th hole. But when he walked down the fairway, he found the film crew 20 yards in front of the 200-yard marker. “I said, ‘Guys, we need to come this way.’ And when they saw how far it was, they couldn’t believe it.”
Saunders said Palmer had 215 yards to the front of the green and 230 to the hole. They considered 3-wood but worried the ball would not release onto the green. It had to be the driver. Which meant Palmer had to thread it into the narrow opening on the left side of the green that wraps around a lake.
After lashing at the ball, Palmer stared admiringly at the shot, his lips pursed. The low stinger scooted up to the left fringe and then caught a slope and turned right. Its momentum finally expired hole high, 20 feet away. The King walked off with a satisfying par.
“That shot was obviously incredible,” Saunders said. “He knew he hit it good, and he was proud of that, and you could tell he was having fun. He enjoyed impressing people and pulling off a tough shot. He still was trying so hard even though he was going to miss the cut. He still had that fire.
“It’s been fun to see that replay this week and over the years,” Saunders added. “One of the great things is watching us laughing and talking as we walk towards the green.”
Palmer is seen letting out a huge roar of a laugh just after the shot and touches Sam on the face. What exactly did the kid say to The King?
“I think it was something like, ‘I’m surprised you didn’t slice that into the water.’ He loved that I could give him the needle there,” Saunders said. “That was really neat that here I was, this 16-year-old kid, and to have had that kind of relationship with him was very special, that we could be that way with each other.”
The emotions surfaced again for Saunders, competing in the tournament for the eighth time, late in his opening-round two-over 74 on Thursday. Standing two under par after 15 holes, Saunders spied his grandfather’s golf cart, clubs tied to the back, to the left of the 16th tee. It was one of Palmer’s favorite locations from which to watch the tournament.
“I started thinking about all the years that I’ve played in the tournament and I thought about all the years I've played,” Saunders said, “and I just started thinking about him driving around in the cart and watching me, and just to see it sitting there empty, yeah, that’s hard.”
Of course, it wasn’t like it was the first time his mind drifted towards such memories.
“All day,” Saunders responded when asked how often he thought of his grandfather. “How can you not? He’s everywhere. I see him, I feel him, you hear about him. So many well-wishers out there towards me, and his presence is overwhelming. It always will be.”