Sam Saunders knows his way around a golf course. As the grandson of golf legend Arnold Palmer, Saunders has learned plenty over the years about the ins and outs of the sport. And while he’s got some deep roots in golf royalty, Saunders is starting to make a name of his own in the PGA Tour.
Saunders had four Top 10 finishes in 2018, the most of his career, and his strong play has put him into the field for The PLAYERS Championship for the first time. Ahead of the tournament, Men’s Journal caught up with Saunders to speak about his training, why he loves surfing, and the best advice he got from his grandfather Arnold Palmer.
Men’s Journal: What’s it like to be part of the PLAYERS Championship field for the first time?
It’s really cool to play on the PGA Tour, but in a way it’s kind of crazy that I haven’t played in The Players yet. Living 20 minutes down the road and growing up in Orlando, TPC Sawgrass and the Players were always really cool to me. I think everyone is going to be blown away by the appearance of the golf course this year on TV. It’s been in May in recent years, so the course was a bit browner and had a firmer, faster play to it. But being back in March now, it’s going to be very green and the bunkers will be beautifully white. You’ll have that contrast—and the course is going to play tougher. It’s going to be really great here.
Did you do anything differently in your training that helped fuel your breakout year?
I kind of got back to playing a bit more aggressively. I always grew up hitting the ball pretty far. I have a good ability to hit the ball high and spin the ball, which can be an advantage on the PGA Tour. And I think my first three years on the PGA Tour I just was trying to fit in and not screw up in a way. Instead, last year, I went in with a little bit more of an aggressive mindset: ‘I’m going to play to win, I’m going to play aggressively, I’m going to hit the ball far.’ I started playing with a little bit more confidence and I actually played more solidly. I didn’t go and win, but I had better finishes and I had more Top 10s. I just played more consistent, good golf.
The Jacksonville area has great outdoor activities. What are some of your favorite things to do around the PLAYERS Championship?
My wife and two kids and I, we’re just outside people. We lived in Colorado for six years, so we hiked, we skied, and I’d snowboard. I don’t really like to go to the gym. I like to get my fitness by being outside. We moved to Florida, and the best way to utilize the outdoors is the water. So whether it’s surfing, boating, swimming, or fishing—anything outside is great for us. My wife and I love to go paddleboarding, and we’ve got a kayak as well. Growing up in Orlando, wakeboarding and water-skiing were big parts of my life. I’ve also got the surfing bug big time. I now understand what everyone means with how much they love surfing. It’s been a challenge so far, but I’ve loved working on it and I enjoy the process of trying to get better. It’s one of the best forms of exercise I can do.
Are there any places you’d like to surf one day?
I go to Waikiki in Hawaii every year for the Sony Open, but that’s not really where the waves are. I’d love to get to the North Shore, but I’m not there yet with my ability. I would love to get to the point where I feel like I’m good enough to handle it.
Is there a trip or adventure that made a big impact on your life?
My family went down to Key West a little while back. We have a five year old, so it was easier to do that than go back to Colorado for some skiing [laughs]. It was a quick flight down and fortunately, through a good friend, I was able to say in Jimmy Buffett’s house. It’s the old original house where he wrote all his music. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s right there on a little canal, and we just had the best time. He’s got Margaritaville signs all over the kitchen; we drank margaritas; we swam in the back canals; we fished; we did some paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling. It was an awesome trip.
What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career?
For me, the advice that’s really helped me was from my grandfather Arnold Palmer. He taught me how important it is to find a system and a process that works best for you, no matter who you are or what you do. If you’re a lawyer, a doctor, a golfer, anyone—find what works best for you personally and develop that system to help you perform your best. When you have a system, whether it’s what time you wake up, what kind of exercises you do, what you eat, how you prepare to do your job, and, in my case, how I prepare to play in golf tournaments, if it’s tailor-made to you, it puts you in your best position to succeed. It can be different for everyone, but the overall idea is keeping a process that works for you and stick to it. Sometimes things just simply work for you over how it works for someone else.
What was your relationship like with your grandfather Arnold Palmer?
Playing golf for a living gave us a lot in common, and we got to spend time together and talk about the sport; he understood my world and I understood his. One of the things I took away from him after all this time is to “talk less and listen more.” He taught me you can learn more by listening. I really do value and cherish the time I got to spend with him during the last 10 years of his life. Around that time, we really got closer and I considered him a friend and someone I had immense respect for. I’ve learned lessons from him I’ll never forget.
If you could face off with any golfer in history, whom would it be and what course would you want to play on?
I won’t say Arnold Palmer since I got to play with him at Bay Hill… or Jack Nicklaus, who I played with at Augusta [laughs]. Being a 31-year-old guy and growing up watching the game, Tiger Woods is the one for me. When he comes out on the course, it’s so cool to see him, even now. I’ll never forget him coming out on the course while we were at Bay Hill. He came up to me and shook my hand and said thanks for having us. That was surreal to me and one of the coolest moments of my life. He’s a living legend, so that would be awesome. Same for Phil Mickelson—I grew up watching both of those guys. It really doesn’t matter what course. It would be a round of golf where I’d keep my mouth shut and try to learn as much as I can.