Sam Saunders may be the grandson of one of the greatest golfers of all time – Arnold Palmer – but it was another grandfather, Robert, who was on the young Saunders’ mind as he shot a 6-under 66 at Sycamore Hills Golf Club on Friday.
The man Sam Saunders calls “Pops” has been gravely ill and hospitalized lately but, as Sam put it: “He hasn’t been talking about himself with me. It’s all been about how proud of me he is.”
Playing with balls inscribed with his grandfather’s name, Sam Saunders put himself at the top of the leader board at the Hotel Fitness Championship at 12 under; he is two strokes ahead of Greg Owen, Colt Knost, Justin Thomas and Derek Fathauer.
“This golf course, if you’re in the fairway, you can score and you can get after it a little bit,” said Saunders, who missed only one fairway, on his final hole, No. 9. “What I’m most pleased with is my attitude out there and how calm I feel. I’m just staying in control and not getting ahead of myself.”
The Hotel Fitness Championship is the first of four events in the Web.com Tour finals, which will determine 25 PGA Tour cards for next season.
The tournament, which has a $1-million purse, including $180,000 for the champion, includes players in the top 75 on the Web.com Tour and Nos. 126 to 200 in the FedExCup rankings.
“If you can be on top, you always want to be there,” Saunders said. “And if you have a two-shot lead, you wish you had a four-shot lead. I saw where I was (on the leader board) and once I got a birdie and went to 11 under, I didn’t want to think, ‘OK, now that I’ve got a lead, I can coast in.’ I wanted to keep playing golf and keep trying to give myself birdie chances. That’s what I did.”
Saunders, 27, was 45th on the Web.com Tour this year with $95,341 in earnings, while making the cut in 12 of 18 tournaments.
After a first-round 66, he came in Friday tied for fourth and two strokes back of the leader, Ryan Blaum, who fell back to 15th place with a 74. The trouble for Blaum, 30, came on the back nine, after he had a 3-under 33 on the front. He bogeyed Nos. 10, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18.
He wasn’t the only one with late struggles; Fathauer was the leader at 11 under before he bogeyed the par-4 16th because it took him two shots to get out of a bunker before a one-putt.
“I had a bad lie against the back lip of the bunker. I couldn’t have gotten it on to the green. I was just trying to hit it over the green. It was just a bad break. You get good breaks and bad breaks,” said Fathauer, who went on to birdie 17 and bogey 18 to finish his 68, two strokes worse than his opening round.
Owen, who came into the day tied for ninth place with a 67, fired another one and took over the lead for much of the day at 10 under, along with Knost, who shot his second straight 67 at Jack Nicklaus-designed Sycamore Hills Golf Club.
Thomas, who once held the course record at Sycamore Hills with a 65 here in the 2010 Junior PGA, followed his opening 69 with a 65.
“The course was a little firmer than it was yesterday. There were a couple tougher pins, but the course was playing really well,” Fathauer said. “You can’t win a tournament Friday or Saturday, so, back nine on Sunday (is when it will be decided).”
Another big mover early in the day was Kevin Tway, the 26-year-old son of Bob Tway, an eight-time PGA Tour winner. Kevin followed his first-round 71 with a 64, which included a 4-under 32 on the front nine with birdies on three of his first five holes. He played 23 PGA Tour events this year, winning $167,278.
Tway is among four players tied for sixth at 9 under.
Defending-champion Trevor Immelman is tied for 41st at 3 under after a 70 on Friday.