A Converted Fan

Saunders (left) with his famous grandfather
Saunders (left) with his famous grandfather

Golf is a tough sport to play professionally.  I don’t mean that in a physical sense – nobody is tackling you in the middle of the fairway.  But what most non-golfers fail to realize is that golf pros play for pay.  That is, they don’t get paid on the golf course unless they perform; and the expenses?  There is no team general manager writing those checks.

All this makes the opportunities to get into PGA Tour events, the richest cricuit in the world, all that more valuable.  It’s the chance to win upwards of a million dollars for winning or even the same amount of money for making a cut as you would for winning a mini-tour event.

So when sponsors exemptions come into play; those 4-8 spots in most tournaments where the sponsor can invite anyone they want, the choices can often wrinkle a nose or two.  Some tour veterans who feel they have put in their time cringe to see some young amateur with little pro experience get a spot they have been hard after.  Let’s just say that sometimes there a lot of hard feelings and criticism when certain players get exemptions.

Take this week for example at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.  One of the exemptions was given to Sam Saunders.  Who you ask?  Well he just happens to be former Clemson golfer with a decent amateur record but nothing that would normally convince  a PGA Tour event to request his presence.  That is, of course, until you find out he is the grandson of the tournament’s 5-time past champion and former unofficial host, Arnold Palmer.  Undoubtedly Saunders is getting this break, as he had others (Golf Channel coverage made the kid a household name years ago) mostly due to to his pedigree.

I have been as critical as the next guy on this kid.  I know too many young pros that have put in too much work to be denied opportunities to play because of nepotism.  Of course, I also realize there is a business involved here and the tournament organizers have the right to invite whomever they choose.  Those are the facts and they are not changing.  But I don’t have to like the kid.

So is he just another person riding a silver spoon into the golf world?  Yes, the track has certainly been greased a bit but I always like to reserve judgement on a person until I get to see them live, maybe have a chance to meet them, and then gauge their character.  It’s not their fault if they happen to be born into money.  The just can’t act like it makes them better than everyone else because of it.

I haven’t had that chance in person with Saunders but his press conference yesterday (yes, the PGA Tour scheduled a press conference around him) steered my assessment of the young man in a very positive way.  He called Jack Nicklaus, Mr. Nicklaus.  He was respectful, well spoken, humble, and very forthright in his answers.  He even made a tasteful response to a quip about Tiger hanging out at Saunder’s house in Orlando (rumours swirled about his grandfather harbouring Tiger after his Thanksgiving incident). See for yourself by reading the transcript here.

Basically the young man won me over.  In fact, I might actually be cheering for him to make the cut this week.