Sam Saunders smiled broadly as he uttered an unquestionably simple observation about the nature of professional golf.
"You know, it's way more fun trying to win a golf tournament than just trying to make a cut," Saunders said, setting his familiar-looking square jaw as he leaned against a clubhouse wall at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, a place where he has known both feelings.
A rookie this year on the PGA TOUR after finishing 13th in the 2014 Web.com Tour Finals, Saunders hopes to ride a recent wave of good play in this week's 37th Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. His chances are good, and not just because he learned the game at Bay Hill under the careful tutelage of his grandfather, the tournament host.
Saunders, 27, has growing belief and confidence in his game after consecutive top-25 finishes, the first of which was a tie for second place at the Puerto Rico Open. Saunders, with a 7-under 281 total at Trump International Golf Club, played his way into a five-man playoff in which Alex Cejka eventually emerged with the title with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Last week, at the Valspar Championship, Saunders performed steadily on the difficult Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa, shooting a 2-under 278 to finish T-24.
Coming into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Saunders is ranked 117th in the FedExCup standings, and he has moved up to 391st in the Official World Golf Ranking.
"His game has really matured, and it's starting to show," Palmer said of his grandson. "He is playing very solidly right now, and putting good rounds together. It's fun to watch him play the way he knows how to play."
Saunders, who made his debut in this event in 2006, will make his sixth appearance in the tournament. He begins at 9:23 a.m. Thursday on the 10th tee, playing alongside fellow Web.com Tour grad Blayne Barber and Rod Perry. His best showing was a T-30 in 2011 mainly on the strength of a third-round 69. Last year Saunders finished to T-43.
"The thing is, good golf is good golf, and it doesn't matter where you are playing," said Saunders, a former club champion at Bay Hill. "By the same token, you can know a golf course really well, but if you aren't hitting the shots you need to hit, then familiarity doesn't really help you."
Good golf hasn't necessarily been in short supply for Saunders this year, even when he was missing five cuts in a row before his Puerto Rico bid. But a new putter and a switch to the new Callaway Chrome Soft ball have made a difference in scoring. Ten of Saunders' last 13 rounds have been under par, and three of his last eight have been in the 60s.
"I felt like I was playing well for the most part this year, but I just wasn't getting a lot out of it. You hear that a lot from guys out here, but it's true that you can be playing pretty well and just not taking advantage of your scoring chances.
"The changes in equipment gave me a little shot of confidence," Saunders added. "It always helps seeing a few more putts go in. You make a few more birdies and next thing you know you're trying to win a tournament. So that was a lot of fun."
Saunders' new putter is a Callaway Jailbird that he modified slightly "to make it my own." He put tennis wrap on the grip and pained the head black. "I like to do things to my clubs," he admits. That's not surprising; one of his grandfather's favorite activities throughout his life has been fiddling with clubs.
Now that he has found a bit of a groove, Saunders intends to take to heart the advice that his grandfather has given him, which is to not fiddle with his game.
"His main message is 'don't overcomplicate things.' You have to just go out and play with what you've got," Saunders said. "Good golf carries over really well, so I just have to stick with what I'm doing right now."
As for his chances to contend again this week, Saunders wasn't making any predictions. "Yes, there is a certain level of comfort here for me, but what makes me more comfortable is that I'm playing well," he said. "I just need to keep doing the things that have been working for me the last few weeks."