Arnold Palmer's grandson looks for first win with early lead at Genesis Open
Sam Saunders is trying to win on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather's victory at Riviera
In 1967, Arnold Palmer took his third Los Angeles Open in five years with a five-stroke victory over Gay Brewer at Rancho Park Golf Course. It was his 49th win on the PGA Tour. On the 50th anniversary of that win, four months after Palmer’s passing, his grandson Sam Saunders is trying to get his first.
Saunders shot a 7-under 64 at Riviera Country Club on Thursday to take a two-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson and a handful of others. The bogey-free round from Saunders was exquisite. To hear him tell it, it came easily.
“It was actually relaxing out there,” said Saunders after his first 18 holes at Riviera on the week. “I’m normally pretty stressed out there, but for some reason today I was pretty comfortable.”
Saunders has to be tired of the Palmer questions and stories, but the reality for him is that they have never been more relevant. Not with Palmer’s passing at the end of 2016. Not with his history at the event. Not with the Arnold Palmer Invitational just a month away.
So the Palmer angle is a nice bump to the narrative, but Saunders has a lot of work to do if he wants PGA Tour victory No. 1. His best finish ever was a playoff loss at the Puerto Rico Open in 2015. He has missed three of four cuts this season. He has only made $1.4 million in 78 career events (which he can nearly match with a win this week).
None of that mattered on Thursday, though. Saunders was flawless with his irons and finished in the top five for the first round in strokes gained on approach shots. It led to seven birdies and a nice cushion of a lead.
Will it hold, though, is the real question. Johnson at two back has five top-fives in his career here without a win, and he’s coming off a third-place finish at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Phil Mickelson is just three back. Adam Scott trails by four. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day linger.
On a week when the best field of the season showed out to fabulous Riviera, it will be a methodical plod for Saunders to go wire to wire. He’s started strong, though. He has put himself in position to play for it on the weekend.
Friday will be intriguing because of the weather that is supposed to bang the west coast over the weekend. Loads of rain wind is expected which will certainly affect the play as well as the rhythm of the tournament.
Saunders gave himself a chance after 18 holes to do what his famous grandfather did three times and hold this tournament’s trophy. If he does, it will be well-deserved.
“I want to give myself a position to win any tournament out on tour,” said Saunders. “I’m still looking for that first win. If it could come at a place like this, it would be pretty special ... but I don’t ever want to get ahead of myself.”
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