Arnold Palmer's presence remains huge at RBC Heritage
By Eric Boynton
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- There's a classic photo of Arnold Palmer at the winner's podium, the championship trophy situated to his right, and the famous candy-striped Harbour Town lighthouse nearly perfectly centered.
The King won the inaugural Heritage Classic in 1969 at the age of 40 and it was so long ago the pictured lighthouse is a mere skeleton of a structure under construction. If his grandson, Clemson alum Sam Saunders, can become the second family member to win the now RBC Heritage, the fabled lighthouse overlooking the 18th would again feature a different look. The tower is currently wrapped in tartan to honor the event's 50th anniversary.
This marks the second Heritage since Palmer's 2016 death. Saunders acknowledged he talked a lot of golf with grandpa over the years, but this remains one of the few venues where Saunders is walking the same fairways and greens where Palmer was triumphant. This is Saunders' fifth appearance at the event and he posted his best career finish here with last season's tie for 11th.
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The Harbour Town Golf Links is one of only five courses that have hosted the same PGA Tour event for 50 years.
"We did talk about this golf course a little bit," Saunders said. "There weren't many we got to talk about that I'm playing that he played. He loved this golf course just as I do now. It's so neat this course has stood the test of time without becoming a long course. We all know that it's tight and you have to put the ball in the right spots.
"We talked about the way you play this course and how you've got to be to control if off the tee and hit good iron shots. It was nice for me to get some of the knowledge he had in his success here. I play a lot of tournaments he won, but a lot of them are not on the same course he actually played. For it to be the same course he played on and won, (to win) would just make it that much more special."
Saunders has participated in an extra honorary cannon blast over the Calibogue Sound on the 18th to honor Palmer (after the initial blast that signifies the start of tournament week). On Wednesday, Saunders met on the driving range with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and 2013 Heritage winner Graeme McDowell to hit some ceremonial balls using vintage clubs from Palmer's era.
Palmer's memory is constant at Harbour Town, from his likeness on flags flapping off light poles to pieces of merchandise that mention his name.
"It's such a neat opportunity for me to be here in a way representing my grandfather and what he did here and what he's continued to do for the game of golf," Saunders said. "This tournament has done such a wonderful job paying tribute to him and I'm just excited to be a part of all of it."
Now Saunders is focused on doing his part to get into weekend contention and give himself a chance to become what surely would be among the most popular champions in the tournament's storied history.
He got off to a hot start in Thursday's opening round with birdies at his first two holes followed by another pair back-to-back at Nos. 5-6. Those would be his final birdies, however, and after a double-bogey at the par-3 No. 14 where he found the water, Saunders would end up tied for 34th with a 1-under 71. He had the misfortune of playing in the afternoon when the winds gusted and swirled after a perfectly benign morning that produced the majority of the leaderboard's upper echelon.
"The most important thing on day one is just to play solid and post something where you can just do your job the rest of the week," Saunders said. "The scores weren't going to be low this (Thursday) afternoon and I'll go out early tomorrow first thing and hopefully make a bunch of putts and shoot a good low number."
This article is written by Eric Boynton from Spartanburg Herald-Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.