On the 14th hole of the South Course at Firestone Country Club in 2012, Tiger Woods watched his playing partner hit a shot of such brilliance that it stunned the 14-time Major champion. And that’s when Woods walked over to Branden Grace and asked him how the hell he’d just done that.
‘I’d hit my tee shot into the fairway bunker on the right,’ Grace explains. ‘It was one of those where the ball was pretty close to the lip. The only realistic option I had was to take a sand wedge and hit it out. But at that stage I was about five or six under par and when you get on a roll like that you think you can do anything.’
‘My caddie Zack [Rasego] told me to just chip it out. But I told him to give me what I think was my seven or eight iron. Tiger then actually walked over to watch me play the shot. I hit it out to 12 feet from the hole. He said that’s one of the best shots he’s ever seen. He actually asked me how I played it. I was like, “Are you joking? You’ve hit shots like this to win Majors and now you’re asking me how I did that in a normal tournament.” It’s moments like that which I’ll never forget.’
For three days, Woods watched a young golfer who looked like a mirror image of himself in terms of his desire to play the game with the same aggression, and his ability to go after impossible shots and pull them off.
Through his meteoric rise in 2012 and then a marked step up on the global stage in 2015, Grace is now being spoken of worldwide as a definite world top-10 player, a future Major champion, and one of the most exciting young players in the game. That expectation will increase this year as he focuses mainly on the PGA Tour.
Always a great striker of the ball, his description of himself as a ‘streaky player’ has boiled down to some inconsistency with the putter. But the change to a claw grip and his work with vision guru Dr Sherylle Calder made him a far more complete player in 2015.
‘In the past I would work so hard on getting the ball close to the hole and then missing the putt. I’m still practising hard on the irons but I know the putting is important. If you can hole those big putts it’s mind boggling what you can achieve. If you look at Jordan Spieth, I don’t think he’s the best ball striker out there but he knows how to get it done. That’s what it takes in this game – making putts when you need to. That’s why he’s No 1 in the world,’ says Grace.
Going into 2016 at 14th in the world, Grace believes a place in the top 10 is a quite realistic target for him this year. And he has the confidence that when it comes to the company of Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, he can quite easily hold his own among them.
‘I can see myself there with Jordan, Jason and Rory. I don’t think the type of golf we play is very different, it just depends on what you make of your breaks when you get them. In 2015 I had the opportunity in the US Open and one bad swing cost me. I learned from it quickly and got myself into position at The PGA Championship. I played a lot better in that environment but Jason was just on a different level. I know I gave him a run early on Sunday before the back nine. The type of golf he played on the back nine, he was just one step ahead of everybody. But it’s nice to know that when you need to switch it on you can.’
It was a few words from Els before the 2015 US Open that unlocked something in Grace’s own mind as to just how far he can rise in this game.
‘When Ernie says something you need to listen and make the most of it. The first time I played well on a links course he was the first to say I’d win an Open. That’s nice to hear from someone who has achieved what a lot of guys can only dream of. We had a chat before the US Open and he said to me, “Your golf is great and it’s your time, I know you can do it”. That makes you believe.’
While Els remains a source of inspiration for Grace, he has always been drawn to the way Woods plays the game.
‘There was just something about Tiger that caught my attention early on. The way he played golf, the way he was aggressive – you could see he wanted it. That’s the type of golf I saw myself playing – going after it when you really need to. That was the type of golf I enjoyed and it’s worked for me so far. So I watched videos of him and tried to learn from the best.
‘I’ve seen the other side of Tiger, and he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve played with. People say he’s arrogant but they don’t see what we as players see between the shots. We spoke about sport, family, friends and so on. People only see what the TV shows them of Tiger.
‘I think golf still needs him. In my books he’s as good as he always was. I don’t think you can ever write him off and it will be a hard road back. But he’s done it before and I don’t see why he can’t do it again. His golf and mental strength are still there, but it depends on his body and how that holds up.’
In 2012, Tiger wasn’t the only one who wanted to know what was going on in the young South African’s head.
Three-time Major champion Padraig Harrington was asked that year who he would most like to play with. ‘Branden Grace,’ he said. ‘I’d love to know what makes him tick.’
‘Family,’ says Grace. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for my parents, and even my brother and sister. And it hasn’t always been easy. There’s sometimes conflict that comes with it. But you work through those things.’
Grace was born in Pretoria as the youngest of three children. He grew up on a plot in Dewagersdrift about 45 minutes from Pretoria, and the family later moved to Magalieskruin, where he went to primary school.
‘I didn’t really play golf in Pretoria, but it was lekker growing up on the plot. After the move to Magalieskruin my dad was given a business opportunity in Buffelsbaai. I went to Sedgefield Primary School and then to Outeniqua High as a boarder. It was when we moved there that I started playing golf and developed the passion for it.’
Sport came far more naturally to Grace than it did to his siblings, which he believes was a good thing for the family dynamic. ‘We all did different things. My brother is an electrician and my sister is a medical rep. I think it helps. It would’ve been tougher if all three of us were involved in sport. They’re very proud of what I’ve achieved, but I’m still just their baby brother. I was always the sport crazy one and knew I was going to do something with a ball for a living.’
Grace earned his South Western Districts colours for cricket, squash, hockey and golf. He was a talented rugby player, but a knee problem when he was 13 put an end to his aspirations in that sport.
At the age of 15, his father advised him to focus on one sport. ‘His opinion was to go for golf. I was a good golfer by then and loved it so it was an easy choice. The downside is that I’ve always loved team sports, and golf cut me away from that completely. It was tough for me. I still miss it. As a kid you want to go play rugby or cricket with your friends, and with golf you just don’t have that team environment. It was especially tough at high school in hostel because all my mates were playing in teams together and had a great bond because of that, which I missed out on.’
In this sense, Grace is not your typical golfer slipping easily into the solitary life of his sport. He is lively on the course, chatting constantly with caddie Zack and he enjoys the interaction with playing partners. His naturally aggressive style and love for the big stage makes for an explosive combination of talent and an ability to back it up. Yet he does so with an uncanny balance between an unshakeable belief in himself and true humility.
‘I’ve always been pretty aggressive in my sport. When I see something I try to do it. I think it also goes back to how you prepare. If you just stand on the range doing the same thing over and over you never think outside the box. I’m not saying go and stand behind trees and try to hook shots around them. But you get days where the wind gusts and people don’t want to practice. I say maybe you should go and hit 20 balls and see what you can figure out. I’ve always been one to go after shots. Sometimes it works and other times it backfires. But you always remember the good ones.’
The final-round eagle he made on the driveable par-four 16th of the Doha Golf Club to win the 2015 Qatar Masters is one that stands out. As does the quality of golf he played during The Presidents Cup.
‘There were some shots I hit during The Presidents Cup which, under the circumstances, were phenomenal golf shots. You feed from those things.’
With Spieth and the like, Grace finds himself in a perfect time for golf, surrounded by the kind of young talent he can relate to.
‘I’m good mates with most guys on tour. As South Africans we stick together quite a bit. But there are some other great guys on tour like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Adam Scott. We all get along. What’s nice is that a lot of the guys who are playing some of the best golf of their lives are all pretty much my age. We have a lot in common and a lot to talk about. Then you get guys you spend time with in The Presidents Cup and form a real bond with, like Danny Lee. I knew about his golf but I didn’t know the off-course person. He’s one of the nicest people you’d ever think of meeting.’
‘And people like Ernie, Louis [Oosthuizen] and Charl [Schwartzel], they’ve all been good to me and all shown me the ropes. This year will be my first full year in the United States. I’ve got a house close to Louis, Charl and Ernie. But there are a lot of things I don’t know. You need advice to get you going, such as the ins and outs of the golf courses and so on.’
Apart from his goals of climbing the world rankings as high as he can, Grace is expecting big things from himself in the Majors in future.
‘I hope so. I think with the golf I’m playing, I’m excited for 2016. I know what Major championship golf feels like. I know what it feels like to be in the hunt. I definitely want to see my name on one of those trophies.’
And off the course, there’s his fiancee Nieke.
‘We met a couple of years ago and I’m happy on the course and off it. That’s been the big key for the way I’ve played. I’m at the point where I’ve realised golf is what I’m good at, but there are a lot of things outside the sport too. I think when you realise that, you start enjoying the game more.
‘We’re still trying to work out a date for the wedding with the golf schedules. It’s hard. We’re thinking November or December to allow some of the golfers I want there to make it. It’s one of those special days of your life you want to remember forever.’
The creation of lasting memories is certainly something Grace is specialising in.