South African star golfer Branden Grace returns to defend his title
On the eve of last year’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, Hall of Fame golfer Ernie Els told fellow South African Branden Grace he had a good feeling about his pal’s prospects at Harbour Town Golf Links.
“We went to his house for coffee, and he told me this is one event that I’m going to win a couple of times in my career,” Grace recalled after notching his first PGA Tour victory at Harbour Town last April. “It was nice to hear from a legend like that.”
Grace made good on his mentor’s prediction, rallying from three shots back with a 5-under-par 66 in the final round, and he’ll be back this month to try to add another tartan jacket to his closet.
The Heritage already held a special place for Grace because his tie for seventh here in 2015 helped him secure his PGA Tour card for the following season. Grace carded three rounds in the 60s in his first Harbour Town start, a harbinger of what was to come a year later.
“I like this place,” Grace said after firing a 66 in last year’s first round. “It's completely different. … There's a couple of shots that I've got up my sleeve — that I like hitting, that I grew up hitting — and I think it suits this place.”
Grace, 28, became the 11th player to earn his first PGA Tour victory at the Heritage, but he was far from an unknown name among golf fans prior to donning tartan on a Lowcountry Sunday. The win was Grace’s 10th international victory, a list that includes seven European Tour triumphs, including back-to-back wins at the Qatar Masters in 2015 and 2016. Last year also was a great one off the course for Grace, who also married Nieke Coetzee in November.
Perhaps Grace could follow in the footsteps of the last first-time winner at Harbour Town — Boo Weekley in 2007 — and join Weekley, Davis Love and Payne Stewart as the only men to win back-to-back tartan jackets.
Winning at Harbour Town has made Grace somewhat scarcer in the United States. With his PGA Tour card secured for two years, he has the flexibility to be more creative with his schedule, playing more international tournaments and focusing on major championships and World Golf Championships events.
There’s plenty to indicate Grace could soon add his name to the list of Heritage champions who have also won majors. He has posted top-five finishes at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship each of the past two years, and at No. 19 in the Official World Golf Ranking (as of March 16), he’s the highest-ranked player from South Africa — a roster that includes the likes of major champions Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.
“The majors are big things, but people don't remember the thirds and fourths, they only remember the wins,” Grace told reporters at last year’s Valero Texas Open. “I really wanted to get that first W over here.”
Fittingly, Grace celebrated that first stateside victory with Els, who was on the other end of his second phone call following the big win. The first went to his parents back home in South Africa.
“(Els) actually called me but I was busy with the interviews and then he was texting my fiancé and he's like, ‘Listen, tell him to call me urgently,’ so I gave him a call back,” Grace recalled days after his win at Harbour Town. “He's a hard one to deal with at sometimes, you know. He says ‘Call me,’ you call him.”
And when he says you’re going to win a golf tournament, you win a golf tournament.