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Saunders finally embracing grandfather Arnold Palmer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- "When I was 21, I finally stood up to him. I fired one right back at him -- and he loved it."

A mischievous grin emerges across Sam Saunders' face as he speaks these words. Walking down the 12th fairway at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, he is recalling the time he earned the respect of his maternal grandfather.

Arnold Palmer.

This was seven years ago and Saunders had just turned professional. They were here at Bay Hill, working on the range together, when right in the middle of a productive practice session, some people stopped by to say hello. Palmer took this as an opportunity to needle the kid.

"He was going to try and embarrass me," says Saunders, now 28. "He wanted to toughen me up; he wanted to make me feel uncomfortable. So he said, 'If this boy will just listen to me, he'll be all right. Otherwise, he's going to end up driving a tractor.' Then he puts that big giant fist right in my face and said, 'What are you gonna do, boy, if I pop you in the nose?' I got right back in his face and said, 'I'll knock you out, old man.' And he got tears in his eyes. I knew that's exactly what he wanted. He was testing me."

Not many people have stood up to Palmer like that in his lifetime. One of golf's most legendary figures ever, he's been constantly surrounded by admirers, well-wishers, yes-men and sycophants in varying degrees of awe of a man so revered that he's casually referred to as The King.

Even at a young age, Saunders knew this much. He'd witnessed the glad-handing and adoration. He knew he didn't want them to have that type of relationship.

"Everybody bows down to him," he explains. "When I did that, from that point on, every conversation I've had with him has been a man-to-man conversation. It's not a granddad-to-grandchild conversation. It's man-to-man, because I earned his respect."

If Saunders sounds comfortable with his familial role as the grandson of one of the game's greats, that's only because it's a learned response.

Growing up at Bay Hill, on the outskirts of a course popularized by Palmer's own PGA Tour event, Saunders enjoyed a normal childhood -- the kind that involved playing outside and riding bikes and climbing trees. It was hardly a study in how to become a professional golfer.

Truth be told, he didn't start taking the game seriously until high school. And it wasn't until he started playing junior tournaments that he understood how his involvement was viewed by others.

"The perception that people have about how I grew up versus how I really did is so far off," he explains. "The rumors that I hear are hilarious. That I flew in his private jet to junior golf tournaments. That I grew up in the big house to the right of 18 at Bay Hill. I mean, I grew up extremely fortunate -- we had a lovely home; we were fine -- but in no way do I think I grew up some rich, famous person. The term that makes my skin crawl is when someone says I was silver-spooned. Nothing eats at me more than that, because that is so far from the truth."

When he credits one person for stoking his interest in competition, it's not Palmer's name he mentions, but his father, Roy.

"I knew my granddad and I saw him and we had a good relationship, but he was still in the midst of his career. I was on my own. I wasn't involved with that life."

The more Saunders continued growing as a golfer, though, the more his grandfather became involved.

A swing tip here. A putting tip there. Some advice on the mental side of the game.

When Palmer competed in his 50th and final Masters Tournament in 2004, it was the 16-year-old Saunders who served as his caddie for the week.

There's hardly a 19th hole or golf library anywhere in the world that doesn't house some sort of Palmer memorabilia, but his grandson might own the most-prized possession of the entire bunch, thanks to that week.

"They let him keep the caddie suit that I wore and I have it now," he says, still shaking his head in disbelief that he might have the only white coveralls to ever make it off Augusta National property. "It's framed in a shadowbox and displayed in my house."

Even so, it was the intangible gifts from his grandfather -- many of them indirectly -- that might have been more valuable and offered a bigger impact.

Now in his second year as a PGA Tour member, Saunders will compete in his 60th career event this week at Palmer's eponymous tournament. Of those, 28 starts have come via sponsor's exemption -- and Saunders realizes exactly why he's been afforded so many opportunities.

He admits that it used to bother him. It represented golf's ultimate Catch-22: He was a struggling young golfer who needed every opportunity he could get, and yet with each one he fully understood that it was solely because of his family connection.

"I don't think other players resented me," he says, "but it's frustrating when you're trying to make a living on the PGA Tour and you're not getting into tournaments, then you see a player who isn't a PGA Tour member getting starts. It's not, quote-unquote, fair. But every guy out here has said to me, in one way or another, we would have taken those starts."

Saunders is candid about how much he's grown as a person since turning professional seven years ago. Much of that attitude adjustment came in the way he viewed his grandfather -- not just Palmer himself, but the gravitational pull that he owns among the sport.

"When I first came on tour, all anyone ever wanted to talk about was your grandfather this, your grandfather that," he remembers. "Back then, it almost bothered me in a way. I was immature. I was tired of hearing about it. I just wanted to be left alone, so that I could go play golf. But I didn't appreciate what he's done for me -- me as a professional golfer, period. Whether I'm his grandson or not. I didn't appreciate what he's done for me. I was too young to get it. I knew a lot about the history of the game, but I didn't appreciate it the way I needed to."

There exists a huge dose of irony in these words.

Nearly every touring pro appreciated the major impact that Palmer had on bringing golf to the masses decades ago, but his own flesh and blood couldn't quite get it. He was too close to it. Too close to him.

Saunders and his siblings have always referred to their grandfather as "Dumpy" -- a nickname spawned by his oldest sister, Emily, when as a toddler she attempted to call him "Grumpy."

And so it just didn't translate that the man he's lovingly called "Dumpy" for his entire life had so greatly affected the game that had now become his career.

"I think some of the other guys out here knew it was uncomfortable for me," he explains. "They knew it was tough. So they wouldn't talk about it; they wouldn't tell me their Arnold Palmer stories, because they knew I didn't want to hear that."

At some point, something clicked.

Saunders says it was a gradual procession, though helped by a few major checkpoints along the way.

Standing up to him on the range in front of well-wishers, that was one. Earning his PGA Tour membership after three years toiling on the developmental Web.com Tour, that was another.

"Now they know I'm past that. Other players will come up to me and tell me, 'I won on the Web.com Tour, and I got a letter from your granddad. That was the coolest thing ever.' That is cool. That is really neat. I want a letter for myself."

The biggest transition in Saunders' maturation, however, had less to do with anything on the golf course. He got married and now has two young sons. A few years ago, they moved to Colorado -- about as far from his grandfather's shadow and Bay Hill as they could get.

It led to one of his favorite conversations with his grandfather.

"The neatest thing he's ever said to me was a couple of years ago," Saunders recalls. "He said, 'Sam, if I were you, in your shoes, I'd be doing exactly what you're doing right now.' That meant more to me than anything. He knew I needed to get away from him. He's my granddad. I love him. But he knew I needed to get away from him. He knows what his name carries. He knows the pressure that puts on me. He doesn't want that for me. He just wants me to be successful, which is the neatest thing ever."

On Tuesday afternoon, Palmer stood behind Saunders at the Bay Hill driving range, just like old times.

He might have whispered a swing tip here and there or a word of encouragement, but mostly he just wanted to watch.

Saunders no longer feels the pressure of expectations based on his lineage. He doesn't feel like he's walking in his grandfather's footsteps or living in his shadow.

"I try to just do my own thing," he insists. "I try to play golf and be successful. But now I think I'll be more successful having the pride and respect that I have for my granddad and what he's done for all of us out here. It's not something I want to hide from anymore."

In fact, Saunders and his family will move back to Florida in a few weeks -- not Bay Hill, but close enough that they'll be just a few hours up the road. He's also taken it upon himself to serve as an unofficial liaison between his family and this week's tournament. He lobbied top players to compete here -- sometimes with successful results, sometimes coming up empty -- and is relishing his role as ambassador, one that Palmer has played so well for so many years.

"My goal this week is to promote the tournament -- what it means to this town, to the PGA Tour and to all of us who play out here. My granddad -- and this is going to sound selfish when I say it -- but he's the reason why we're all out here. I want people to recognize that, and I want all of the players to recognize that. I think they all do and that's what is so neat. That's so neat for me to see. It's something I can be proud of."

He wasn't always so proud of this tournament. He also wasn't always so proud of his grandfather.

The man he calls Dumpy might be the most important single person in the game's development in the past century, but it took a lengthy maturation process for Saunders to understand what so many of his peers had always realized.

"If someone asks me about my granddad now, I talk about him with pride," he says. "He's somebody I'm proud to say I know and I've learned from. That's a great feeling to have."

The feeling, of course, is mutual.

As he sat in his office in the Bay Hill clubhouse this week, Palmer was asked about his grandson.

The same grandson who, just like him, wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The same one who caddied for him in his last Masters, who challenged him on the practice range, who once saw their relationship as a burden and now speaks of him in only the most reverential tones.

"I'm very proud of him," Palmer says. "I am happy to see him playing well and his performance has been good. He is coming on as I hoped he would at this stage of his life, and I think he can be a definite factor on the PGA Tour in the years to come. He is a fine young man as well as a fine golfer. He is doing things the right way."