Sam Saunders knows that when the crowds follow him these days it has less to do with how he is playing than to whom he is related. Saunders, a 23-year-old who left Clemson after his junior year to turn professional, doesn’t hide that he is Arnold Palmer’s grandson. He wore an “Arnold Palmer Half & Half” logo on his tomato-red golf shirt during his practice round Wednesday.
“I always hear, ‘That’s Arnold’s grandson.’ That’s pretty much all I hear,” Saunders said. “I sometimes wonder, ‘Do they think I can’t hear them?’ I’m standing right here. It’s fine. It’s not that they’re saying anything bad.”
Saunders would prefer to be known more for his golf than his grandfather, even though that connection has helped him get quite a few exemptions into PGA Tour events. This time, however, he made it into the field all on his own.
“I’m honored to get the starts that I do,” he said. “I think early they came 100 percent from the reason that I’m Arnold’s grandson. Eventually, I played well in some tournaments and I think I proved it was okay for me to get some of those exemptions. But to be able to play my way into this one and be here for no other reason than that is really special.”
The USGA announced that Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., will host the 2018 U.S. Open, meaning sites for the tournament through the end of this decade have been selected.
Shinnecock, one of the five clubs that helped found the USGA in 1894, is the only club to have hosted Opens in three different centuries. But it is most recently remembered for the fiasco in 2004, when USGA officials miscalculated how much water to put on the greens, and the final round became a massacre in which no one broke par and the average score was nearly 79.
“I look back on that, and it was a terribly unpleasant day,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director who helped with course setup back then.
USGA officials, though, said that experience has dictated their philosophical change that has resulted in Opens that have been considered fair.
Open sites for 2012-17, in order, are: Olympic Club in San Francisco; Merion, outside Philadelphia; Pinehurst, N.C.; Chambers Bay, outside Seattle; Oakmont, near Pittsburgh; and Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Pebble Beach, site of last year’s Open, will again host the tournament in 2019.
For someone like Joey Lamielle, making the Open is a dream come true. It is also a financial nightmare.
Lamielle, a 28-year-old from Sarasota, Fla., has been forced to play mini-tour events lately since losing his sponsorship. The former Nationwide Tour player is competing in his second Open, having missed the cut in 2008 at Torrey Pines.
After winning the sectional qualifier at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., Lamielle told the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press, “I don’t have the money to get up there” to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.
But with help from his parents, Joe and Debbie, some friends back home and Jim Albus, the 1991 Senior Players champion, who is letting him stay at his home in Olney, Lamielle is ready to tee off with the rest of the field on Thursday.
“It’s a lot of beg, borrow. I thought about stealing, but. . . ” Lamielle said with a laugh. “There was a lot of, ‘Oh, dear!’ You rack up five grand without even thinking about it. It’s like, ooohhh, that’s got to come from somewhere. I don’t have it.”
“The last couple months have been extremely low for me,” Lamielle said during a break from practicing his putting. “I’ve been doing my best to find sponsorship back home and I just keep running into dead end after dead end after dead end. . . .
“It’s just like, somebody, please! This is just another sign. I have to make the most of this. This has definitely brought a lot of [attention] to the circumstance and what I’m dealing with. It’s all good.”
Asked what playing in the U.S. Open can mean to his career, Lamielle said: “It’s a big swift kick in the hind end. It could be just a rocket ship to a whole other level.”
WILCOX’S SECOND CHANCE: Five years ago, Will Wilcox hit bottom. He was working for $5.15 an hour in a kitchen and had all but given up on golf. He hadn’t played a competitive round in more than two years.
Wilcox, 24, had squandered a successful junior golf career with some foolish choices. A pair of DUIs his first year at the University of Alabama-Birmingham cost him his scholarship. He was estranged from his family.
“What happened was I was 18 and stupid,” he said. “I didn’t know how good I had it.”
After getting a second chance at Division II Clayton State, Wilcox got his life and his golf career back on track. He was the rookie of the year on the Hooters Tour last year, and this year has earned status on the Nationwide Tour after finishing tied for third at the Stadion Classic.
“I feel like I got all the wildness out of me from 16 to 19,” he said. “I appreciate things a lot more because of that experience.”
Wilcox certainly appreciates playing in the U.S. Open.
“This is my first major,” he said. “It’s just amazing getting to be here. . . . Playing in this is just a huge dream come true.”
Throughout his practice round, Fred Funk was bombarded by autograph requests, and the local favorite was happy to oblige even though he spent more time signing than working on his game.
“That’s the hard part out here,” he said. “I can’t say no.”
One woman’s request had Funk howling in laughter when she asked him to sign some pictures.
“Are these mine,” Funk asked, “or do I have to give them back?”
The woman wanted the pictures back.
“They were pictures of me where I was dating her sister back in the day,” he said.