Like most of the pros entered in the Chiquita Classic, Sam Saunders grew up around the game of golf.
But few, if any, of Saunders’ fellow competitors in this weekend’s PGA Web.com Tour event at River Run Country Club frequently get advice from golf royalty.
Saunders, 26, is the grandson of Hall of Famer and seven-time major winner Arnold Palmer. While Saunders credits his father, Roy, for most of his development as a golfer, it was Palmer who first showed him how to grip a golf club at age 4 and still offers advice.
“We talk a good bit – maybe every other week,” said Saunders, whose mother, Amy, is Palmer’s youngest daughter. “We talk about the game and how everything feels. I like to see how he’s doing, and he likes to make sure I’m still doing all the stuff I should be doing out here.”
That advice has served Saunders well, even if he didn’t always heed it.
“The kind of stuff he taught me, I wasn’t really ready for until a few years ago,” said Saunders, who played three years at Clemson before turning pro before his senior year in 2008. “This is big-time stuff, real golf, and even when I was in college I wasn’t ready for what he was trying to teach me.”
He’s listening now, and the advice is paying off.
In his third year on the Web.com Tour, Saunders is having his best season yet – he’s made the cut in 13 of 19 tournaments, and sits 33rd in earnings after tying for fourth at last week’s Hotel Fitness Championships in Fort Wayne, Ind.
A strong showing at the Chiquita Classic – the second of the four Web.com Tour Finals events – would put Saunders in good position to earn his PGA Tour card for 2015.
“Knowing that I’m more than likely going to be on the PGA Tour next year is one of the most exciting things ever for me,” he said. “I’m so grateful that I’m going to have that chance to finally be where I’ve been trying to get for so long. I’ll appreciate every moment of it.”
Just don’t expect to see Palmer in the crowd for any tournament Saunders is playing in.
“Every week, someone always asks me, ‘Is your granddad coming?’ ” Saunders said. “It’s not a smart answer, I try to make a joke out of it, but I always say, ‘Does your granddad come watch you work?’
“He respects what I do, and I respect what he did and how he helps me. But he understands this is my job, this is my livelihood. What I appreciate is that he’s very conscientious to not ever be a distraction. He knows that if he shows up, he’s going to be a distraction. He tries to let me do my thing.”
Ortiz withdraws: Carlos Ortiz, a three-time winner on the Web.com Tour this season, decided to withdraw from the Chiquita Classic after he missed the cut at last week’s tournament in Fort Wayne.
Ortiz, of Mexico, has won a tour-leading $515,403. Andrew Putnam is second in earnings at $340,038 – a difference of $175,365. Putnam can move into the lead by winning this weekend’s tournament, which pays the winner $180,000.
Even thought Ortiz has earned a “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour with his three Web.com Tour victories this season, he can still earn a berth in next year’s Players Championship by finishing No. 1 in earnings at the end of the season.
Thursday’s schedule: The pros will begin the first round of the Chiquita Classic, with the first groups teeing off on No. 1 and No. 10 at 7:30 a.m. The afternoon groups will tee off at 12:25 p.m.