Saunders owns unique vantage point in honoring Arnie debate

Sam Saunders, Arnold Palmer's grandson, understands that not every top PGA Tour player would be able to play next week at Bay Hill for various reasons. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Sam Saunders has heard some of the rumblings that not all of the big names will be showing up next week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to honor his grandfather's legacy in the first year of the tournament following his death.

As a professional golfer himself, Saunders is fully aware of the scheduling issues faced by players today. As the grandson of one of the game's most famous icons, he dearly wants everyone to be at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge next week to celebrate him.

And like the poised young man who delivered a stirring eulogy at Arnold Palmer's memorial service, Saunders answered the question with a positive spin that would make his grandfather proud.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed,'' Saunders said at the Innisbrook Resort, where he is playing in this week's Valspar Championship. "I knew this question was going to come, and I've thought about it a good bit, and there is not an easy way to answer it. It is difficult. There are a lot of big tournaments sandwiched around each other right now.

"But, rather than focusing on the guys who won't be there, I'd rather focus on the guys who will be there. And I understand how important next week is and how much I appreciate their commitment to coming and playing the event.''

Among the big names skipping are world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 5 Jordan Spieth, No. 8 Adam Scott and No. 19 Phil Mickelson.

Johnson, Spieth and Mickelson are playing the WGC-Dell Match Play the week after Bay Hill, then the Shell Houston Open and the Masters. Scott, whose wife is pregnant in Australia, went home to be with her after the WGC-Mexico Championship and is returning for the Houston Open the week prior to the Masters.

Despite a larger purse and a bigger winner's exemption, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is like many other events that are not immune to the various scheduling vagaries of professional golfers.

As of now, the unofficial count has 14 of the top 25 players in the world entered. That can change by the commitment deadline on Friday night.

"We've got Jason Day, we've got Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker, Billy Horschel -- who said some stuff on Twitter, I understand. I appreciate it,'' Saunders said. "It's nice when other guys can beat the drum for us and really get the word out there and that this is a big thing. This is important.

"Mr. [Jack] Nickalus and my grandfather are both huge reasons why we get to play for the kind of money we get to play for and why there even is a PGA Tour today. I really appreciate the guys, whether it fits their schedules or not, who are making the effort to come and play because they recognize the importance of the event.''

Saunders is playing on a sponsor exemption because he is not exempt on the PGA Tour this season. Playing in the Web.com Tour Finals last fall, he missed out on his chance to secure a PGA Tour card when the final event was canceled due to a hurricane.

So Saunders is back on the Web.com Tour, although he has already had several sponsor exemptions in PGA Tour events. In his lone Web.com event, he tied for eighth. This is his sixth PGA Tour event this season, and he has missed three cuts in his previous five starts.

It was at the memorial service in Latrobe, Pennslyvania, last September that Saunders told the story about Palmer taking his call while he was in the Oval Office. And how he had spoken to Palmer on the phone less than an hour before he passed away, a shock that still stings.

But Saunders, who grew up around Bay Hill and won several club championships, is determined to make next week a happy time rather than a sad one.

Along with Graeme McDowell, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen and Annika Sorenstam -- who will all serve as tournament hosts this week with an eye on the future -- Saunders will do all he can to make it a success.

"I'm excited,'' he said. "It's going to be a big week. A lot of fun. There will be some sad moments. But it's really going to be a celebration more so than it is a bunch of sadness. My grandfather had a great life and really did some wonderful things. It's our opportunity to have a week where we are front and center in the golfing world.

"Every year it is our chance to continue to show what he did for us all and carry on the legacy he left behind. Have a positive influence on the golf community and have a huge outreach around the world like my grandfather was able to do. That's what we are going to try and do, and every year to come.''