PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Sam Saunders hasn’t had much experience competing in the U.S. Open, but he has had plenty of experience shouldering the burden of being the grandson of the late Arnold Palmer, who famously won a U.S. Open with what is still the largest final-round comeback in the history of the championship. Granted, Saunders never has considered it a burden, but as the progeny of one of the game’s greats—who arguably is considered its most popular figure—Saunders has had to accept that a dizzying set of expectations and responsibilities will be imposed upon him.
Largely, these are not expectations he hasn’t long ago imposed upon himself.
At this week’s 119th U.S. Open, Saunders will carry along the legacy of his grandfather at a place where his expectations might never be higher at a major championship venue.
“This is only my third U.S. Open, and it is by far the most meaningful—if not one of the most meaningful tournaments I will ever play,” Saunders, 31, said.
Until his passing in 2016, Palmer was a longtime member of the investment group that purchased Pebble Beach Golf Links in 1999. He never won an event here, though he came close several times, most notably in the 1972 U.S. Open when he nearly overtook his rival Jack Nicklaus in the final round. But Palmer loved the place, and he was instrumental in many of the renovations and upgrades in recent years.
In 2015, Palmer was reviewing golf course plans for this week’s U.S. Open for an upcoming board meeting, and he wrote about it and his affection for Pebble Beach in his final memoir, “A Life Well Played,” published just after his death on Sept. 25, 2016. He had helped initiate several changes to the course for the 2010 championship, and he was excited about the prospects for the course presentation for Pebble’s sixth U.S. Open, which it is hosting in this its centennial year. Among the living, breathing examples of his efforts are the revamped greens at Nos. 14 and 17.
It’s no surprise that Saunders has spent a considerable amount of time at Pebble Beach. And with his connection to the iconic seaside links on the Monterey Peninsula, Saunders will have the honor of hitting the first shot of the championship on hole No. 1 at 6:45 a.m. PDT.
“To have the USGA put that much thought into it and there’s a reason they put me off first, then I am incredibly flattered and very touched by it,” said Saunders, who is paired with Carlos Ortiz and Marcus Fraser for the first two rounds. “To hit the first tee shot is exciting, but hopefully I go out there and put up a good score and put myself in contention and be on the leader board from the very beginning to the end.”
Ranked 326th in the world, Saunders earned his spot in the field by finishing third among 121 players in the always-stacked Columbus, Ohio, sectional qualifier. Despite being in the midst of four straight missed cuts on the PGA Tour, Saunders shot an opening 64, including a front-nine 29, at Brookside Golf & Country Club, one shy of the course record, before submitting a solid one-under 69 at much tougher Scioto Country Club.
“I wanted to qualify so badly that my mindset [at Brookside] was to shoot as many under as I could and take advantage of a hot start,” said Saunders, who missed the cut in the 2011 championship at Congressional and finished T-50 in 2015 at Chambers Bay. “If I could have shot 15 under I’d have went for it.
“Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Pebble Beach and for a lot of reasons. Pebble Beach is really the epitome of where you would want to play the U.S. Open. It’s pretty much every golfer’s dream to play a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. I love it, and I know my grandfather loved being here.”
It was an unrequited love. In addition to his disappointment in the ’72 U.S. Open, Palmer was in the hunt at the 1967 Crosby (now the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) when he hit two balls out of bounds at the par-5 14th hole. Trailing Nicklaus by a stroke, Palmer went for the green in two, but he pushed the approach to the right, where his ball caromed off a tree and out of play. He dropped and tried the same shot and, shockingly, suffered the same result after his ball bounced off the same tree. Eventually, he took a nine on the hole and finished third.
“A storm blew through the course that night and uprooted the tree,” Palmer wrote in his memoir. “Some say nature tried to make it up to me. I say too late.”
Saunders has his own competitive memories, here, and they are dear to him. After turning professional in 2009, the Clemson product made his first PGA Tour cut in the 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, finishing T-70. The following year he secured his first top-25 with a T-15 showing.
He has been a close observer to the improvements his grandfather has helped execute during his time as one of the owners. Palmer was proud of his association with Pebble Beach, and it was important to him that one of America’s most historically significant golf courses be respectfully preserved.
“I think my grandfather would be extremely approving of what we’re seeing here this week. The golf course is incredible,” Saunders said. “It goes without me saying that there has been some controversy between the players and the USGA and the way some courses have been set up. I think they are making every effort to make this golf course a great test, something players will find acceptable. Obviously, it’s challenging. It’s a U.S. Open. But it’s nothing over the top out there. They want it to be great. They want it to be the Pebble Beach we all know. And I think this will be a great week.”
A great week for Saunders entails more than just being here. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour, but other than Bay Hill in Orlando, where he grew up and which hosts the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational, Pebble Beach offers his best chance to succeed.
Not long ago, Saunders was asked what his grandfather might say to him about his career if he were still mentoring him. The young man didn’t flinch, replying, “He’d say, get on with it already,” meaning it was time for him to start winning.
Indeed, it would be a good time to get on with it. Saunders is 31. That’s the same age at which Arnold Palmer, trailing by seven strokes after 54 holes, charged to victory at Cherry Hills in the 1960 U.S. Open.