(Reuters) - Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer, made a timely return to form with his putter as he charged into a one-shot lead in the opening round of the inaugural Barbasol Championship on Thursday in Auburn, Alabama.
On a hot and steamy day, the 27-year-old American piled up seven birdies in a flawless seven-under-par 64 to set the pace in the first PGA Tour event to be staged in the state since the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham.
While the game’s leading players are competing this week in the third major of the year at the British Open in Scotland, Saunders led the way on home soil as he vied for title honors with the lesser lights on the U.S. circuit.
Saunders signed off with a 14-foot birdie putt on his final hole, the par-four ninth on the Grand National layout at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, to end a sweltering day a stroke in front of fellow American Jason Gore.
“I just putted a lot better,” Saunders, who is bidding for a maiden victory in his first full-time season on the PGA Tour, told reporters.
“I’ve been playing really well lately, been hitting the ball as well as I’ve ever hit it in my career in the past few weeks ... I just had been putting terribly.
“I finally just had a few putts go in today and that always turns over into a little bit of confidence.”
Saunders, whose best PGA Tour finish was a five-man playoff loss at the Puerto Rico Open in March, was delighted to conclude his round with a birdie after finding a fairway bunker off the ninth tee.
“The second shot ... was a little bit difficult out of that bunker, but I just made a nice swing and got fortunate to hit it into good spot and made another putt,” he smiled.
“It is just the first round, yes, but it’s always nice to get off to a good start. It’s a golf course that I really liked and felt suited my game, based on you have to hit the ball well here, and I did that today.”
Americans Will Wilcox, Carlos Sainz Jr, Martin Flores and amateur Maverick McNealy, and Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz, opened with 66s at Grand National.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Larry Fine