AKRON, Ohio – He doesn’t dismiss the value of those three wins on the other side of the world.
But the three rounds here, at a furnace called Firestone Country Club, alongside Tiger Woods? Branden Grace doesn’t deny that they may offer a truer indication that he’s arrived a very nice place in his golf career.
Just 24, the unheralded South African got confirmation that his spot at No. 51 in the world order was being taken seriously when he was put in as Woods’ playing competitor for the $8.5 million Bridgestone Invitational. “This is my fourth visit here (to the U.S.) and my pairings have never been great,” Grace said.
But being drawn with Woods, whom he considers to be the best in the game? Grace poured on the praise.
“He was everything I’d hoped he’d be. He’s my idol and a role model. Pretty much he was the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”
Comfort and camaraderie aside, Grace also took a great deal of confidence out of the three-day tour. Though Woods has struggled mightily with his scoring game, it has been quite a different story for Grace. The personable South African rolled in five birdie putts from inside of 10 feet to burn the front in 30 en route to a 66.
“I’m so happy with how I played,” Grace said, though there was good news, bad news to his day.
On the bright side, at 2-under 208, Grace is in red numbers and inside the top 20. But the bad? Because Grace outscored Woods (68), they will not be playing competitors for a fourth consecutive day. Disappointing, though Grace reiterated that he got a lot out of these three days.
“The first day was a little hectic. First time playing with Tiger? I was a little nervous,” he said. “But I’ve learned a lot. The way he plays shots, the way he handles himself. He is the best in the world. I’ve seen it now.”
Since his pairing was made public last week, Grace has been swamped with emails and text messages from friends and family back in South Africa. But had any of them predicted he’d play three times beside Woods, “I would have said, ‘You’re nuts,’ “Grace said.
Battling nerves, Grace was outplayed Thursday, 70-72, but he has gone 70-66 the last two days to outshine Woods’ 72-68. Through 54 holes, Grace is two strokes ahead of Woods, though truth be told, if you’re not battling for the lead – and neither of these gentlemen are – it means not a thing.
Still . . . when you’re 24 and you’ve arrived on the world stage via wins in South Africa (the Joburg Open and Volvo Golf Champions) and China (Volvo China Open), it’s the chance to step out of the shadows and prove yourself against the very best that ignite the competitive flames within. On that count, you’d have to hand it to Grace and say that he’s acquitted himself beautifully.
He made his first pro start on American soil in the WGC Cadillac Championship in March and finished T-35. There have been steady finishes in succession – a T-25 at the Memorial, T-51 in the U.S. Open, and after making the cut at the Open Championship, Grace is in line for a strong finish in yet another WGC.
“It’s nice to go out there knowing the birdies are there for the making,” said Grace, whose torrid outward nine continued when he stuffed his approach from 91 yards and birdied the par-4 10th. He was 6 under on his round, but the good times stopped there. Grace bogeyed the par-4 13th and par-5 16th, but even with those miscues he learned.
“It’s going to happen around this golf course,” he said. “This golf course? You’ve got to get to know it.”
Consider this week, then, a cram session and Grace a quick learner. The impressive thing is, he’s done it without the statistical brilliance one might expect from someone 2 under. While Woods hit more fairways (22-17) and greens (39-29), the game ultimately comes down to how you perform on the greens and it’s been a wide contrast for three days.
Whereas Woods (93 putts) hasn’t seen a putt he couldn’t pull wide or push off line, Grace has been superb. Still, what speaks volumes for the way Grace has stepped into view isn’t the six birdies he made in 10 holes Saturday but the middle round – 18 consecutive pars Friday.
It was yet another step along Grace’s impressive progression, which will continue next week at his first PGA Championship, at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. After that, he’ll take some time off, then play in Switzerland, and treat himself to more time off.
His starts in the U.S. will be over for the year, but it’s a fairly safe bet that there’ll be more to come in 2013.