PGA Tour veteran Sam Saunders took one look at the golf swing of NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin on the TPC Sawgrass practice range on Wednesday and knew he’d have to concentrate when the two got to the 17th tee of the Players Stadium Course during their cross-promotional appearance for The Players Championship and the Daytona 500.
“His swing is solid,” said Saunders, an Atlantic Beach resident. “I knew I’d actually have to put some effort into this shot.”
As it often happens at the 17th hole, in tournament play or casual rounds, a lot happened, good and bad.
With two of the most coveted prizes in their two sports just a few feet away - the Harley J. Earl Trophy for winning the Daytona 500 (on Feb. 18) and the FedEx Cup for winning the Tour’s season-long points race - Saunders and Hamlin took dead aim in a chilly morning with blustery wind.
Saunders put his tee shot from 141 yards onto the green, but 50 feet below the hole, and three-putted for bogey.
Hamlin, a left-hander who said he’s an eight-handicap, pushed his tee shot and the ball landed on the bulkhead bordering the foot path to the green. The ball nearly bounced onto the green but landed in the water.
Hamlin then recovered to re-tee and hit his third shot pin-high, 15 feet away. He two-putted for a double bogey.
“A real pillow fight there,” Saunders observed.
It was the first time Hamlin had ever visited the TPC Sawgrass, and he said his first impression of the iconic 17th hole was awe.
“You see it on TV, and you realize that doesn’t do it justice,” he said.
The two athletes are mutual admirers of the other’s craft. Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 winner, is part of a group called the “Golf Guys.” They’re a collection of about 20 drivers, crew members, NASCAR officials and broadcasters who play eight tournaments at different NASCAR venues, with a points system loosely based on the FedEx Cup.
Hamlin has finished first and second the last two years.
Hamlin, who lives near Charlotte, N.C., said he looks forward to the start of the race season at Daytona because he can get in a handful of golf rounds during Speed Weeks.
“The start of the race season is the start of the golf season for me and friends of mine,” he said. “I love coming to Florida for two weeks because I do have time to play golf.”
Hamlin estimates that 10 percent of NASCAR drivers play golf.
Saunders grew up in Orlando and frequently attended races at the Daytona International Speedway. His famous grandfather, Arnold Palmer, was good friends with Michael Waltrip (Palmer had a long-time business relationship with Pennzoil, which was one of Waltrip’s sponsors) and so Waltrip became his favorite driver growing up.
“I got to watch from luxury boxes, go down in the pits … I loved racing,” Saunders said. “It was so much fun to watch. I have two boys now who are obsessed with any kind of race-car driving so I intend to take them to Daytona. Now I’ve got a new guy to cheer for [Hamlin].”
Both Saunders and Hamlin were eager to get 2018 started.
Saunders missed the cut in three of his four starts during the fall portion of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, but posted two good performances last month, tying for 25th at the Sony Open and for eighth at the CareerBuilder Challenge. His next start is at Pebble Beach next week.
Hamlin, winner of 31 races on the Monster Energy circuit, is the senior driver with Joe Gibbs Racing. Also on that team this season is Kyle Busch (winner of 43 races) and the last two Xfinity Series rookies of the year, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Jones also was the Monster Energy rookie of the year in 2017.
The four drivers combined for 70 top-10s and 35 top-five finishes last season. Busch won five races and Hamlin two.
“We’re ready to go,” Hamlin said. “We led a lot of laps at the end of last year and came very close to the final four. We’re looking forward it with the dynamic of two veterans, myself and Kyle, and two young guys, Daniel and Erik. I’m optimistic we can take the next step.”