ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Even though Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer, has had only one close call at winning on the PGA Tour, he has felt the pressure of playing the final hole.
In his last two PGA Tour starts, Saunders has gone into the dangerous part of the course with no room for error as he tries to make the cut. He made it through the “Bear Trap” at PGA National with four straight pars in the Honda Classic. And he closed with two tough par saves last week at the Valspar Championship.
Adding to the difficulty is the time of day.
Saunders plays out of the lowest priority, meaning he often gets the last tee time. With that comes a few distractions, making the task that much tougher.
“There’s isn’t one guy out here who wouldn’t tell you tough it is,” Saunders said. “You’re dealing with stuff that’s … it’s strange. There’s some people out on the course that are hooting and hollering. You’re dealing with all the volunteers packing up and leaving. It’s getting dark, so the rules officials are watching you because they want you to finish. Sometimes it can be a little tough to stay focused and not be distracted. Because there are a lot of distractions late on Friday.”
Last week, he got up-and-down for par on the 17th, and saved par from behind the 18th green to finish at 3 over and make the cut on the number. He didn’t realize that because amateur Lee McCoy had made the cut, Saunders could have made bogey on the last hole and made it to the weekend, though with 85 players, there would have been another cut after 54 holes.
“I thought I had to make par and I hit a really good chip,” he said. “To hit that shot under that circumstance, it’s extremely satisfying and you take a lot from that. And made cut is a made cut. And it’s never a bad thing.”
A 67-70 weekend at the Honda Classic gave him a tie for 14th. A 68-72 weekend at Innisbrook gave him a tie for 22nd.
Saunders will be taking on more duties at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But it’s still a PGA Tour event, and he fully expects to be in the last group no matter what side of the draw he is on.
“I’m always last off, and it’s frustrating at times,” he said. “I think the earliest tee time I’ve ever had for Thursday-Friday was third or fourth from the last group. But most importantly, I’m getting a tee time. No complaints.”
Saunders has a tee time at Bay Hill this week. He’s in the last group Thursday.
PALMER TO SKIP OPENING TEE SHOT AT MASTERS: Arnold Palmer will be on the first tee to help start the Masters this year _ but without his golf clubs.
Palmer said Tuesday he has told Augusta National that he will not be hitting the ceremonial tee shot next month, a role the four-time Masters champion had taken on since 2007. Jack Nicklaus joined him in 2010 and Gary Player, the other member of the “Big Three,” was added in 2012.
“I plan to go out to the first tee with the chairman on Thursday morning and watch Jack and Gary sweat it out and hit the shots,” Palmer said.
The 86-year-old Palmer is slowing down, even choosing this year at Bay Hill not to have his news conference ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Instead, he took a list of questions that were submitted last week by the golf media.
“I would love to go on doing it forever, but I don’t have the physical capability to hit the shot the way I would want to hit it,” Palmer said. “So we’ll have to be content to watch.”
The honorary starter at the Masters dates to 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod. It was revived in 1981 with Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen, and then went on a hiatus after Sam Snead died in 2002 until Augusta National chairman Billy Payne persuaded Palmer to hit the opening shot in 2007.
Palmer said he would attend the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night and be on the first tee Thursday morning before going home to Orlando, which has been his typical schedule the past few years. He also played the Par 3 Tournament, but stopped doing that last year.
“Am I disappointed by that? Well, sure, but times moves on,” Palmer said about not hitting the opening tee shot. “I stopped playing in the Masters in (2004), I stopped playing in the Par 3 last year, and now it’s time to end this part of my Masters career.”
KNOX GOES TO AUGUSTA: Russell Knox is playing in his first Masters next month, and part of him looks as much forward to the Par 3 Contest.
The son of his late coach will be his caddie.
Mike Flemming was the Jacksonville University coach who recruited Knox from Inverness, Scotland, and remained his coach and mentor as he made his way onto the PGA Tour. Flemming died two years ago, and Knox choked back tears thinking about him when he won in Shanghai.
“It was always my coach and mine’s dream to get to Augusta,” Knox said. “Even on the mini-tours, that was the goal. He would joke, `Let’s get to the Masters before I die.’ He obviously didn’t make it. So when I did qualify, it only made sense to have him (Neal Flemming) come along for the par 3. My coach’s wife will be there as well.”
Knox already has shared the experience with his father, who accompanies him _ but did not play _ when Knox played Augusta National for the first time in early February. Knox couldn’t decide who had the better time.
“He said the word, `Wow!’ about 10,000 times,” Knox said of his dad. “So that was cool. It’s a great place. I can’t wait.”
PADRAIG’S ADVENTURES: Padraig Harrington flew halfway around the world after the Valspar Championship to New Delhi, where he will play the Hero Indian Open. He said it would be his first time playing in India since 1994, a week that marks one of his career highlights.
It wasn’t a major. It wasn’t a Ryder Cup.
It was his accountant’s exam.
“My mother informed me that I got my exam results at home, and they told they weren’t going to open them,” said Harrington, who studied accounting at Dublin Business College. “They steamed them open. They told me if I failed, they weren’t going to tell me. But because I passed, they told me.
“That was the week I became a qualified accountant.”
He never finished what he referred to as “my articles” for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, and thus never officially was an accountant. Harrington will have to settle for a pair of British Open titles, a PGA Championship, six appearances in the Ryder Cup and 11 times representing Ireland in the World Cup.
He said he has three honorary doctorate degrees.
“I can put all those letters after my name, but I can’t put `ACCA’ because I didn’t do my articles,” he said. “Life is funny. I don’t see it as a disappointment. One thing I learned is you have to have an expert look after those things.”
LPGA TO CBS: Five years after the LPGA Tour had only two tournaments on network television, it picked up its seventh of the season when CBS said it would broadcast the final round of the Marathon Classic on July 17.
That means the LPGA Tour will be shown on network TV for four straight weekends in July _ the U.S. Women’s Open (Fox Sports), Marathon Classic (CBS), International Crown (NBC) and Ricoh Women’s British Open (NBC).
The other network events are the KPMG Women’s PGA (NBC), the Evian Masters (NBC) and the CME Group Tour Championship (ABC).
“Our team has been focused on expanding our network TV coverage, which gives us a chance to showcase the LPGA to a much broader audience to attract more casual fans,” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said.
DIVOTS: The final spot in the 120-man field came down to the 85th position in the FedEx Cup standings. Blayne Barber and Sung Kang were tied at 236.340 points. The tiebreaker was last year, and Barber got the nod because he finished No. 121 in the FedEx Cup, and Kang was on the Web.com Tour. The good news for Kang? He got in, anyway, when Kevin Na withdrew. … Harrington went from Florida to India and then will return to Texas for the Shell Houston Open, where he would have to win to qualify for the Masters. “If I sat home and didn’t give myself a chance, I would feel I was letting myself down if I didn’t try,” Harrington said. … Saunders is moving his wife and two young sons from Fort Collins, Colorado, to St. Augustine. Saunders said he loves Fort Collins: “If I did not play golf for a living, I’d live there for the rest of my life.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Valspar Championship at Innisbrook was the first time since the Texas Open that no one shot lower than 66 all week.
FINAL WORD: “Arnold Palmer made golf sexy.” _ Jason Day.