Like most young athletes, Sam Saunders dreamed of one day becoming the greatest athlete at his chosen sport. Unlike most athletes, a member of his family already had accomplished that feat.
Saunders, 25, is the grandson of golf legend Arnold Palmer. This weekend, he will be playing in the Web.com Tour's Neediest Kids Championship, which tees off Thursday at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm.
The son of Palmer's youngest daughter, Saunders always has had golf in his blood. He remembers a junior tournament in Florida where his father was his caddy. Saunders hit a wrong shot, was penalized and ended up with a triple bogey on the first hole. But on the back nine, Saunders caught fire. He birdied 11, 12 and 13. Then on 14, he hit his first hole in one and ended up winning the tournament.
Saunders has holed four more aces, most recently at the Humana Challenge on the PGA Tour, but the first one stands out because his dad was on the bag.
Being Palmer's grandson hasn't been as easy as it sounds. With the opportunities come expectations and the struggle to define himself as more than just a famous golfer's relative.
"People are always going to call me Arnold Palmer's grandson," Saunders said. "I used to let it bother me. But at this point in my life, I'm a grown man"
Some people expect Saunders to be the second coming of the man they called "The King." But he doesn't want to be.
"I don't really want to be famous; I just want to be a good golfer," Saunders said. "As far as I'm concerned, if I can fly as much under the radar as I possibly can and go as unnoticed as I possibly can, that's my ideal situation."
As he matured, Saunders started to appreciate life outside of golf and realized that golf is just a game. Beyond that, at some point it becomes "a job."
Saunders strives for the delicate balance between golf and life, which can be as difficult as mixing the right proportions of lemonade and iced tea. He aims for excellence on the course but maintains an active lifestyle off it. Skiing, biking and fishing are daily activities. Then there was that one time he went fishing and caught a 10-foot alligator.
"Ten-foot-six," Saunders corrects, half-joking. "Don't get it wrong."
A couple of years ago, Saunders, his dad and a family friend ventured out into a lake in north Florida at 4 a.m. He hooked the 360-pounder with a fishing pole and spent 30 minutes pulling him in.
Saunders, who struggles at times with his sand wedge, says catching an alligator was just a little bit harder than hitting the club. He hopes that he won't be doing much of either at this weekend's tournament.
The Web.com Tour, a developmental tour for players on the cusp of making the PGA Tour, typically features shorter courses that force players to hit a driver, then a sand wedge. For example, last weekend's Chaquita Classic at The Club at Longview was 6,609 yards.
This weekend's par-70 course measures 7,139 yards. The added distance should help Saunders, who considers himself a good mid-iron player. Saunders plans to hit 4- and 5-irons on par 4s for the first time all year.
"This golf course is what I would call a 'big boy golf course,'" Saunders said. "This is what they play on the PGA Tour. I've played quite a few PGA Tour events, including the U.S. Open, and this is a U.S. Open golf course."