By Dave Shedloski
Sam Saunders can play the Championship Course almost whenever he wants. The grandson of Arnold Palmer practically grew up at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, and twice he has won the club championship.
But Saunders desperately wanted to earn some weekend tee times here, and he accomplished that when he fired a 2-under-par 70 Friday and made the cut with room to spare in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
“This feels so good,” said Saunders, 22, who completed 36 holes in 1-under-par 143. “After the Honda Classic, I got past just trying to make cuts. This week there was a bit more pressure. I didn’t want to disappoint all my family and friends. I wanted to use my exemption to the fullest.”
Saunders finished tied for 17th two weeks ago at the Honda Classic at PGA National for his first top-25 on the PGA Tour. He is playing in his second Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, having missed the cut in 2006 with a 158 total – 15 strokes higher than what he produced on a sun-drenched day Friday.
The former Clemson standout made three birdies with putts of 16, 17 and three feet respectively at Nos. 1, 10 and 11. But it was his lone bogey on the third hole that was most crucial to keeping him on track for his third cut in five PGA TOUR starts this year. Saunders had hit into the water with his tee shot and found himself plugged in a greenside bunker with his fourth shot after another drive and approach over the green. He managed to gouge that out to 25 feet and then drained the putt.
“Just being able to avoid that double bogey, that big number, that was a huge save for me,” Saunders said. “After that, I just played really steady golf. I really just kept it in play and gave myself chances.”
That’s his game plan for the weekend: just keep it in play.
“The golf course is pretty tough, but I really feel like I’m in this golf tournament and have a chance to win it if I play well,” Saunders said. “First I have to get into contention. My ball striking was better Friday, and if I keep giving myself chances at birdie, the way I’m putting, I’m certainly capable of making more birdies and maybe moving up.
“This is all really great. I’m so excited to be playing this weekend,” Saunders added. “But my goal is to just keep going, playing solid, and not being satisfied, and then just see where that takes me.”