ORLANDO, Fla.—Sam Saunders stepped onto the first tee at Bay Hill and flashed a quick thumb's-up to the crowd—the trademark gesture of his grandfather.
For the next four hours, memories of Arnold Palmer were all around him yesterday.
Nothing hit him harder, though, than his walk to the 16th tee.
Parked next to the tee was Palmer's cart—that's where his grandfather loved to watch the action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational—and Saunders grew emotional.
“I started thinking about all the years that I've played in the tournament, and I just started thinking about him driving around in the cart and watching me,” Saunders said.
"And just to see it sitting there empty . . . yeah, that's hard. I think we all feel that.
“I had my emotional moment, looked at it, and then got my head where it needed to be to play the next hole,” he added.
And then he finished like Palmer, taking on tough shots.
They just didn't work out the way he wanted, though that sometimes was the case for the “King,” too.
The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without the beloved tournament host began with Emiliano Grillo of Argentina and Matt Fitzpatrick of England opening at five-under 67 to share the lead on a Bay Hill course that looked better than ever.
Saunders hit five-iron from a fairway bunker on the par-five 16th and came up short into the water, leading to bogey.
His four-iron landed an inch from the hole and nicked the pin on the par-three 17th.
Then he went after the flag with a six-iron on the 18th and again found water for a double-bogey, leaving him at 74.
Even so, it was a big day.
The week is a celebration of Palmer, who died Sept. 25, for the tournament he brought to Bay Hill in 1979 and played until 2004, when he hit driver off the deck on the 18th hole with 16-year-old Saunders on the bag.
Saunders not only received a sponsor exemption, he was placed in the star pairing for the afternoon with Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker.
McIlroy twice made bogeys from the bunker yesterday and three-putted from 18 feet on the fringe in his round of 74.
Canadian Adam Hadwin, who won the Valspar Championship last weekend for his first PGA victory, opened with a two-under 70.
David Hearn of Brantford, Ont., also was at two-under while Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask. finished four-over.
Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont. was seven-over.
Multi-coloured umbrellas—the famous Palmer logo—were everywhere at Bay Hill yesterday. They were on shirt collars and caps, golf bags, and even the covers of fairway metals.
Parkas might have been more appropriate, though, especially with the round beginning in 39 degrees F— the coldest start of a PGA Tour event this year, in Florida, no less.
Grillo made the most of it.
After two soft bogeys, the 24-year-old Argentine came to life with seven birdies.
Those included a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 9 and a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 17.
“If I had my hands out of my pockets for a minute or two, I would be freezing,” Grillo noted.
“But I was able to keep it in the fairway mostly all day and I was able to make a few good putts on #9 and #17, and that kept me going.”
Grillo played Bay Hill last year. It was the first time he saw the King in person, riding in his cart.
Fitzpatrick played in warmer and slightly-easier conditions in the afternoon, running off four birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn.
They were one shot clear of former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, Paul Casey, and Charley Hoffman.
Defending champ Jason Day was among those at two-under.