Saun­ders opens 2-shot lead at Riviera

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - SPORTS - By Doug Ferguson

LOS AN­GE­LES >> This is the star­ring role Sam Saun­ders prefers.

Saun­ders, the grand­son of Arnold Palmer who so fa­mously kept his com­po­sure dur­ing a heart­felt eu­logy of The King, rolled in birdie putts and kept a clean card at Riviera on Thurs­day for a 7-un­der 64 and an early two-shot lead in the Ge­n­e­sis Open.

Saun­ders called it his best round on the PGA Tour, and it was merely a co­in­ci­dence that it came on the 50-year an­niver­sary of Palmer de­fend­ing his ti­tle at the Los An­ge­les Open, when it was played at Ran­cho Mu­nic­i­pal.

“He just al­ways talked about how much he loved com­ing out there and play­ing,” Saun­ders said. “I think his celebrity matched pretty well with the celebrity at­mos­phere that you have here, so he was ob­vi­ously com­fort­able with that.”

Saun­ders had a two-shot lead over Dustin John­son, who has a chance to go to No. 1 if he were to win this week. Daniel Sum­mer­hays, Cameron Percy, J.T. Pos­ton and Brett Stegmaier joined John­son at 66, while Phil Mick­el­son was among those at 67.

Be­cause of a fog de­lay in the morn­ing, dark­ness kept 48 play­ers from fin­ish­ing the first round. They were to re­turn 7 a.m. Fri­day, though the big­ger ques­tion was whether a mon­ster storm of rain and wind would al­low for that.

Jor­dan Spi­eth was at 2 un­der and fac­ing a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th. Ja­son Day was at even par through 16 holes, while Hideki Mat­suyama was 1 un­der through 16 holes.

Saun­ders has kept a busy sched­ule over the last four months in the af­ter­math of Palmer’s death. He is tak­ing on a big­ger role at the Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional next month, along with be­ing a hus­band and the fa­ther of two sons, and get­ting his golf game in shape.

“It’s been busy, but busy in a good way,” he said.

Saun­ders was rock solid Oct. 3 when he stood be­fore thou­sands at St. Vin­cent Col­lege, and so many more watch­ing the live tele­cast of Palmer’s me­mo­rial ser­vice. Speak­ing with­out notes, Saun­ders beau­ti­fully cap­tured the spirit of Palmer as a golfer and as a grand­fa­ther, say­ing that day, “There wasn’t a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the man you saw on TV and the man we knew at home.”

He has al­ways been known as Palmer’s grand­son, and Saun­ders has learned to em­brace it. He no longer wor­ries about try­ing to make a name for him­self.

“I don’t need to com­pete against my grand­fa­ther’s ca­reer. No­body can,” he said. “I don’t care how many golf tour­na­ments you win, no­body’s go­ing to com­pete in the terms of do­ing what he did for the game. And for me to try to pro­mote my own brand or name would be fool­ish be­cause I have such a great op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote and to con­tinue what he has al­ready done. That’s what I’m go­ing to do and not make it about my­self.”

The morn­ing was per­fect for scor­ing once the fog lifted, and Saun­ders rarely had a round with so lit­tle stress. He only came close to mak­ing bo­gey twice, sav­ing par with an 8-foot putt on the par-3 fourth hole and a 6-foot putt on the par-3 14th.

Saun­ders, with only con­di­tional sta­tus this year, is play­ing on the first of what fig­ures to be sev­eral spon­sor ex­emp­tions. He missed the cut in La Quinta and Peb­ble Beach and knew with the fore­cast so dire that it would be key to get­ting off to a good start.

John­son has come close to win­ning Riviera, one of his fa­vorite cour­ses, four of the last five years and he looked as though he might be tough to beat this week when he holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole as he made the turn, go­ing out in 32.

He failed to birdie the par-5 first hole when his ap­proach was on the fringe on the wrong side of the green, forc­ing him to hit a flop shot to the other side. Worse yet, he was stung on the neck by a bee, and stood on the next tee rolling a cold wa­ter bot­tle against his neck as his brother and cad­die, Austin, re­moved the stinger.

John­son hit two or­di­nary shots, but fol­lowed with a pair of 25foot birdie putts. A bo­gey on the fourth hole dropped him to 5 un­der, and he fin­ished with pars.

Mick­el­son is play­ing his fifth straight event, though the 46-year-old sure didn’t seem both­ered by that. He went ea­glebirdie-birdie around the turn to briefly take the lead and set­tled for a 67.

Also at 68 was Billy Hur­ley III, sur­prised by a strong per­for­mance af­ter writ­ing a mov­ing let­ter in The Play­ers Tri­bune to his late fa­ther, who com­mit­ted sui­cide. Oth­ers at 68 in­cluded Bran­den Grace, play­ing Riviera for the first time, and Padraig Har­ring­ton, who fears a shoul­der in­jury might re­quire surgery.

RYAN KANG - AP

Sam Saun­ders fol­lows his shot from the rough on the ninth hole dur­ing the first round of the Ge­n­e­sis Open golf tour­na­ment at Riviera Coun­try Club Thurs­day in the Pa­cific Palisades area of Los An­ge­les.

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