BY DOUG FERGUSON
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For all the highlights from Bay Hill, watching Arnold Palmer play the 18th hole for the final time is hard to beat.
His score in 2004 is irrelevant. Palmer was 74.
For his final act, he hit driver off the deck with all the thunderous might he had left, a low slider that bounded onto the green and down the ridge toward the flag. Palmer was all smiles, and so was his caddie — 16-year-old grandson Sam Saunders — as they walked toward the green.
“I remember the shot so well,” Saunders said Thursday after a rough finish to an emotional day at the Arnold Palmer Invitational gave him a 74, seven shots behind Emiliano Grillo and Matt Fitzpatrick.
What he didn’t remember until seeing the entire video is the give-and-take with his grandfather. Saunders can’t recall what he said to him that made the King laugh so hard, or the needle they exchanged.
“We had that kind of relationship, even as a 16-year-old, which is pretty neat,” Saunders said. “I don’t think that a lot of 16-year-olds can be in that situation with their granddad, obviously, so I’m forever grateful for it.”
The Arnold Palmer Invitational this year is the first without Palmer, who died Sept. 25 of heart complications.
Saunders is not at Bay Hill to take his place. He is here to play golf, and he was irritated by two poor swings and one poor decision that led to three balls in the water hazard and four dropped shots in his round of 74.
His tournament history dates to 2002, when he was 14 and starting to find his way as a golfer, and Palmer allowed for his grandson to play as a non-competing marker. Saunders got his first sponsor exemption in 2006 at age 18.
Saunders wanted this to be just like a normal round, and that was never going to be easy.
He is the face of this tournament, and he is quite aware of that.
It goes back to Oct. 4, when Saunders showed so much poise and humility as he stood before thousands of golf’s most important figures and spoke at Palmer’s funeral service at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
With the tournament approaching, he was lobbying players to enter — this is the second-strongest for the Arnold Palmer Invitational over the last decade. He led a march of “Arnie’s Army” on Monday. He was the lead speaker of a press conference Wednesday.
And then he set out to play golf . Just another tournament, another round.
There already was one difference. Saunders has never won on the PGA Tour, doesn’t have full status and was playing on a sponsor exemption. The PGA Tour still orchestrated the draw so that he would be in the featured group in the afternoon with Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker.
Walking through the tunnel and onto the tee, without an empty seat in the grandstands on both sides and behind the tee box, Saunders flashed a quick thumbs-up.
That was his grandfather’s trademark gesture.
When he was announced — he asked the starter to say he was representing Bay Hill, even though Saunders and his young family lives near Jacksonville — the size of the ovation was similar to when Tiger Woods was introduced during his record eight victories.
“It was regular golf for me,” he said.
Except for multicolored umbrellas — Palmer’s famous logo — that were on shirts, collars, bags and caps of the players. Except for the endless comments of encouragement from the gallery. And except for the golf cart.
Especially the golf cart.
Saunders knew the tournament was going to park Palmer’s cart — with a full set of golf clubs strapped to the back — to the right of the 16th tee, pointed toward the 18th green. That was his grandfather’s favorite place to watch the tournament.
Seeing it was more difficult than he imagined.
“I started thinking about all the years that I’ve played in the tournament, and I just started thinking about him driving around in the cart and watching me,” Saunders said. “And just to see it sitting there empty … yeah, that’s hard. I think we all feel that. I had my emotional moment, looked at it, and then got my head where it needed to be to play the next hole.”
From a fairway bunker, he hit 5-iron just short and into the water. His 4-iron on the par-3 17th landed an inch from the cup and nicked the pin. His 6-iron on the 18th was headed right for the flag and came up short and into the water.
Saunders is his own player, and always has been.
Even so, it was hard to ignore the final three holes packed with drama and excitement — and yes, a few groans and bogeys — was something these fans of Palmer had seen before.
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