PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – It’s probably not a popular course of action to stand there as an unheralded young lad and take down not one, but two national heroes in a playoff.
But it may go a long way in explaining why Branden Grace is where he his, which is a long way from where he was.
Is: The 30th-ranked player in world.
Was: No. 271 at the end of the 2011 season.
Now moving up 241 spots in less than 15 months is a formidable task, but Grace has met the challenge. Quietly, confidently, impressively. But if the four European PGA Tour wins and a fifth on the Sunshine Tour in that time haven’t exactly brought Grace the rush of fanfare one might expect, be patient.
He certainly is.
“You have to put yourself out there to get a little recognition. It will take time, but you might have one great week here and it all might change,” Grace said. then he paused, a 24-year-old riding a good streak and thrilled to be doing so. He doesn’t have any complaints.
“I must say, what I’ve been receiving is all good, on the range and things like that.”
That Grace tied for the lead after the morning portion of the Honda Classic, having shot a 5-under 65 before being passed by Camilo Villegas, is validation to his growing reputation as a world-class talent. That he is even here in the first place is a testament to the due diligence done by the tournament director and his staff. With only two unrestricted sponsor’s exemptions, officials studied a ridiculously rich list of talent and did quite well – Grace, ranked 30th in the world, and Matteo Manassero, 44th in the world, 73 on the scoreboard.
Quite cognizant of the sort of names who would have been legitimate exemption candidates – No. 31 Jamie Donaldson, No. 32 Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, No. 39 Francesco Molinari, No. 41 Thorbjorn Olesen, No. 42 George Coetzee, No. 62 Shane Lowry, just to name a few, and you always have names such as Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay – Grace is overflowing with appreciation.
“Just getting the opportunity to play is awesome, and if you can take advantage of it, then it makes it even better. There’s so many guys (from the tour) in Europe, like myself, who want to get out there and compete in the states,” he said.
Grace hasn’t applied any more pressure to his cause just because he’s a sponsor’s exemption. “At the moment,” he said, “I’m really just taking it as it comes. I just feel there’s nothing to lose, so I can enjoy it.”
Clearly, there’s nothing about Thursday’s opening round that Grace didn’t enjoy. Even bogeys at the par-4 second and par-4 10th didn’t fluster him; that’s what happens when you make massive birdie putts at the eighth and ninth and close with four straight birdies, including on each of the infamous “Bear Trap” holes.
Now when Jack Nicklaus re-designed PGA National’s Championship Course, he took extra care to toughen up the par-3 15th, par-4 16th, and par-17th – making sure that you had to navigate more water than Michael Phelps. Having accepted the sponsor’s exemption, Grace began thinking about his first-ever Honda appearance and he keenly absorbed Charl Schwartzel’s words.
“He said, ‘Listen, the four finishing holes are quite a beast out there,’ “ Grace recalled.
Beast, meet beauty – Grace stuffed his tee shot to 18 inches at the 173-yard 15th, rolled in a 17-footer at 16 and converted an 18-footer at 17.
To completed a dream finish, Brace got it up-and-down from just off the fringe at the 556-yard, par-5 18th to complete the blistering finish.
“Just had to try and give yourself some good opportunities,” Grace said. “I hit four good putts in a row.”
Forget that Grace rode into south Florida with a first-round loss in last week’s Accenture Match Play Championship; it was bitterly cold and perhaps more than any contingent of players, the South Africans as a group were in shock with the conditions. What is a better assessment of his talents and the state of his game is what has unfolded since early January in 2012 – wins at the Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions, Volvo China Open, and Dunhill Links Championship. Throw in a Sunshine Tour victory and you’ve got the answer to the question: How did he he get here from there so fast?
Now each of the tournament wins has significance. “The first one (Joburg) was the first one, it’s where everything started,” Grace said. But No. 3 came in China, giving him the “international” win he wanted, and to win “where (golf) all started,” the Dunhill Links at St. Andrews, was something special.
But win No. 2, the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt, George, South Africa? It came at the expense of South Africa’s golden heroes of major championship lore, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, as Grace beat ‘em both in a playoff. One can imagine that the home folks must have been stunned; sure, Grace was one of their own, but Els and Goosen are icons.
“Obviously now, it’s awesome,” Grace laughs, but the truth is, he never had time to give the daunting task any thought. He finished his round that day, quickly signed his card, and went right into the playoff. Els, meanwhile had come from behind to tie and had a long wait till the playoff hole.
“If I was in (Els’) case, sitting around an hour, waiting, having lunch, then I probably would have been a nervous wreck,” he said. “But I didn’t have time to think about what was going on.”
Instead Grace won and the impressive roll hasn’t stopped.
Last year he played in the season’s last three majors and this year he’ll sweeten the deal, having earned his first Masters spot. There are berths into all four of the World Golf Championships, but just as noteworthy is the fact that Grace grabbed a sponsor’s attention in the U.S. to grab this invite. It’s easy to see why he might continue to be extended spots; the Shell Houston Open and Valero Texas Open are possibilities.
“Obviously, being over here a couple of times and getting used to the stuff, it’s a lot easier now,” he said.
Now it’s notable that Grace is among seven South Africans in the top 60 (Louis Oosthuizen is No. 5, Schwartzel 14th, Els 24th, Grace 30th, George Coetzee 42nd, Tim Clark 48th, and Richard Sterne 52nd), but it shouldn’t be treated as breaking news. South Africans have been plentiful and a force on the world stage for years. As recently as the end of 2011, for instance, there were eight inside the world’s top 100.
And certainly, it’s intriguing that Grace is 24 and Coetzee 26 (Sterne is 31), and have progressed along the same road in much the same manner. But even that has a bit of an “old story” feel to it, because “I think the South African guys, they always come through in pairs,” he said. (Hello there, Els and Goosen.)
So instead of a celebratory story to a nation’s rich pool of golf talent, perhaps it’s best to focus on one man’s sparkling stretch of play, which continued in the opening round of the Honda Classic.