ORLANDO, Fla. -- It didn't really hit Sam Saunders until the 16th hole.
Sure, that first tee shot gave him a few butterflies. All of the Bay Hill spectators, so many he knows by name, offering him a louder ovation than for playing partners Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker. After that, though, it was just golf. Just another round. Some good shots, some not-so-good shots, but mostly a solid, steady display.
"Once I got rolling," he'd later say, "I felt fine."
Then he arrived at the 16th hole.
That's when he saw the golf cart. The golf cart of Arnold Palmer, his late grandfather.
The memories came rushing back. This was where the man he called "Dumpy" enjoyed watching golf during his eponymous tournament. This was where he would often greet players, or just admire their shots from afar. And this is where Bay Hill officials left his cart in memoriam for Thursday's opening round, right behind the 16th tee box, with a view toward the 18th hole, too.
So when Saunders stepped onto the 16th tee, under par for the day and playing just another round of golf, it finally hit him.
"I started thinking about all the years that I've played in the tournament," he explained afterward. "I just started thinking about him driving around in the cart and watching me. Just to see it sitting there empty, yeah, that's hard. I think we all feel that, certainly. But like I said, I had my emotional moment, looked at it, and then got my head where it needed to be and ready to play the next hole."
If those first 15 holes were steady, the final three offered some serious drama.
After seeing his grandfather's golf cart on the par-5 16th, Saunders drove his ball into the left-side bunker, and then hit a 5-iron into the pond short of the green, resulting in his third bogey of the day.
On the par-3 17th, he was nearly the recipient of what undoubtedly would've been termed some divine intervention. Saunders pulled his 4-iron shot just a touch, and then watched as it hit the base of the flagstick -- about as close to a slam-dunk hole-in-one as possible without going in. After the ball caromed away, he two-putted for par.
Then on 18, his approach fell short of the green, bouncing into the rocks below before dropping helplessly into the water hazard. He would make double-bogey.
The end result was a 2-over 74 that was better than the score and tougher than it looked.
In the six months since Palmer's death, Saunders has often taken on the role of public face of his family. He spoke eloquently at the funeral, tried to rally players to attend this tournament and this week has worn numerous hats in multiple ways.
On Tuesday afternoon, for example, he led an Arnie's Army charitable march down the ninth hole, more than a thousand others following him. On Wednesday morning, he emceed a media conference with tournament officials and hosts, and then was first in line to begin a flurry of ceremonial tee shots on the driving range with his fellow competitors.
It's not easy to compete in a PGA Tour event with any outside distractions, let alone so many of them. Through it all, though, Saunders channeled his grandfather, acknowledging supporters and accommodating requests.
"We have had so much going on and so many great things happening," he said. "It's actually made it go by kind of quickly, it's made it flow evenly for me, so it hasn't been a lot of sitting around and feeling emotions, just because I've been so busy, on top of trying to prepare for a golf tournament."
For most of the day, it was just golf. Just another round on a course Saunders says he has played "thousands" of times.
For that one moment, though, when he saw that empty golf cart, those memories of his grandfather came rushing back, a reminder of the bond they shared.
"I see him. I feel him," he said. "His presence is overwhelming. It always will be."