LOS ANGELES—This is the starring role Sam Saunders prefers.
Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer who so famously kept his composure during a heartfelt eulogy of “The King,” rolled in birdie putts and kept a clean card at Riviera yesterday for a seven-under 64 and an early two-shot lead in the Genesis Open.
Saunders called it his best round on the PGA Tour, and it merely was a coincidence that it came on the 50-year anniversary of Palmer defending his title at the Los Angeles Open, when it was played at Rancho Municipal.
“He just always talked about how much he loved coming out there and playing,” Saunders said.
“I think his celebrity matched pretty well with the celebrity atmosphere that you have here, so he was obviously comfortable with that.”
Saunders held a two-shot lead over Dustin Johnson, who has a chance to go to No. 1 in the world if he were to win this week.
Daniel Summerhays, Cameron Percy, J.T. Poston, and Brett Stegmaier joined Johnson at 66 while Phil Mickelson was among those at 67 yesterday.
Because of a fog delay in the morning, darkness kept 48 players from finishing the first round.
They were scheduled to return early this morning, though the bigger question was whether a monster storm of rain and wind would allow for that.
Jordan Spieth was at two-under and facing a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th.
Jason Day was at even par through 16 holes while Hideki Matsuyama was one-under through 16.
Saunders has kept a busy schedule over the last four months in the aftermath of Palmer's death.
He is taking on a bigger role at the Arnold Palmer Invitational next month, along with being a husband and the father of two sons and getting his golf game in shape.
“It's been busy but busy in a good way,” he noted.
Yesterday morning was perfect for scoring once the fog lifted, and Saunders rarely had a round with so little stress.
He only came close to making bogey twice—saving par with an eight-foot putt on the par-three fourth hole and a six-foot putt on the par-three 14th.
Saunders, with only conditional status this year, is playing on the first of what figures to be several sponsor exemptions.
He missed the cut in La Quinta and Pebble Beach, and knew with the forecast so dire that it would be key to getting off to a good start.
Johnson has come close to winning Riviera, one of his favourite courses, four of the last five years.
And he looked as though he might be tough to beat this week when he holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole as he made the turn, going out in 32.
Mickelson, meanwhile, is playing his fifth-straight event, though the 46-year-old sure didn't seem bothered by that.
He went eagle-birdie-birdie around the turn to briefly take the lead before settling for a 67.