Branden Grace finds peace, harmony, victory with caddie Zack Rasego

Branden Grace poses with finacee Nieke Coetzee.

Branden Grace finds peace, harmony, victory with caddie Zack Rasego

PGA Tour

Branden Grace finds peace, harmony, victory with caddie Zack Rasego

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the April 25 issue of Golfweek.

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.  – When he reached for the strap, it was because it’s all he has ever known. But when Zack Rasego was told to put the bag down, the caddie smiled and did what he was told.

“It’s a tradition. You know that,” Jimmy Johnson said, picking up the bag to carry it the last 15-20 yards to an area behind the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links.

With a smile warmer than the sun that danced out on Calibogue Sound, Rasego walked with a lighter step into the winner’s circle behind his boss, Branden Grace, who made it clear that this brilliant close to the RBC Heritage was a team effort.

“He’s part of the family,” Grace said. “I told Zack at the beginning of the week, I feel that our relationship is so good that we can talk about anything on the golf course.”

Five birdies going out and a sturdy 5-under 66 had enabled Grace, 27, to erase a three-stroke deficit April 17 and overtake Luke Donald for his first PGA Tour victory in only his eighth start as a member. Yet, as she stood to the side, Nieke Coetzee talked not of birdies and stinger 3-irons around a cozy Harbour Town layout that were at the heart of her fiancee’s victory but of a camaraderie that provides priceless guidance.

“It’s kind of like (Zack) is a father for him, in a way,” Coetzee said. “He calms him down a lot. He brings a massive amount of calm to Branden.”

She smiled, then said: “I’m going to cry. I don’t want to cry right now.”

For Coetzee, it was acceptable for the tears to flow. For others, it was unacceptable to offer surprise at this victory.

Grace, after all, was the second-highest-ranked player in the field (14th). Just last summer he was in position to win the U.S. Open and PGA, only to fall short – T-4 and third – against stellar talents Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, respectively. Talent, he has. Confidence, it is buoyed by Rasego, 53, who has worked for Grace for a couple of years.

“Mentally, Branden needed that,” Coetzee said of the caddie’s encouragement after Grace missed the cut at the Masters the week before. Grace had played beautifully tee-to-green, only to struggle with Augusta National’s devilish putting surfaces.

“But he’s a guy,” she said, “who will play out of his heart.”

 

And in Rasego, Grace has a caddie who inspires.

“Zero My Hero,” is what Johnson calls him, a tribute to the number that Rasego wore during his soccer days in South Africa. Growing up in Sun City, Rasego would get out of school and run several miles to the Gary Player Country Club just for the chance to caddie.

When professional golfers came from overseas to play in Sunshine Tour events, Rasego somehow connected with a kid who had played collegiately at North Texas State and thus began a friendship that is more than 30 years old.

“I would pay him $300 a week,” Johnson said. “He loved to caddie. It is what he wanted to do.”

When Johnson’s playing days ended, he morphed into one of the game’s best caddies – for a long time with Nick Price, then with Steve Stricker, now with Justin Thomas. The job has given Johnson a better appreciation of his friend Rasego, who won a British Open with Louis Oosthuizen and a Senior British Open with Gary Player.

That Grace recognizes those same attributes is a tribute to both South Africans.

“He’s got a couple of young kids back home,” Grace said. “I don’t want to just do well for myself. I want to do well for him, as well. He’s well liked. He’s caddied his whole life, and this is what he wants to do.”

What envelopes the RBC Heritage is a warmth that permeates, be there fog, drizzle or wind. Grace had never been here till last year, yet he felt it immediately.

“I like this golf course,” he said of Harbour Town. “I like the way it plays.”

Coetzee reminded that it wasn’t the top 5s at the majors in 2015 that backboned her fiance’s breakthrough season. “It was this course last year (that) helped change his whole mindset,” she said of a T-7 finish, “and give him the confidence he needed.”

What provided the ambiance of the RBC Heritage this time around were cookouts at a home rented by caddies. Grace, at Rasego’s urging, attended one night, then returned the next night to cook lamb chops.

“He loves to barbecue,” Coetzee said.

A few days later, Grace toasted the field. His four birdies in the first six holes set the tone for the day. They also alerted Johnson, who knew enough to be prepared. When he was there at the 72nd hole, Johnson personified the family atmosphere that makes Hilton Head go.

“You know the rules,” Johnson said, taking the bag from Rasego.

And so the caddie who had meant so much to Grace’s victory gave up the strap.

Just for those last few steps into the winner’s circle, of course.

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