Branden Grace heads to Oakmont Country Club this week hoping to emulate Ernie Els, who won his first major title there in 1994. It’s 22 years later and there are a few similarities between the two players that could be a good omen for Grace.
Both were in the top-15 in the world coming into the week of the US Open and both had won in the Middle East on the European Tour before arriving at Oakmont (Els at the 1994 Dubai Desert Classic, Grace at the 2016 Qatar Masters).
Grace is ranked 12th in the world has had a few near-misses, much like Els, who finished in a tie for seventh at the 1993 US Open before winning the next year. At Chambers Bay in 2015 Grace was in with a shout, but an errant drive at the 16th nullified his chances and the seven-time European Tour winner shared fourth place.
The 28-year-old backed up his US Open showing with a strong performance at the PGA Championship, where he finished third on his own behind Jordan Spieth and winner Jason Day.
SA’s top-ranked golfer took a step up last year after winning the Qatar Masters, which propelled him into the top 50 in the world. His major exploits were a natural progression for the big-hitting Fancourt local, who caught the attention of the US public in the majors last year.
Grace began 2016 with two top-five finishes (at the SA Open and Abu Dhabi Golf Championship) before going one step better and successfully defending his Qatar Masters title.
The win put him on the fringe of the world’s top 10 and he decided to shift his focus exclusively to the PGA Tour.
A missed cut at the Honda Classic was not a good way to start 2016 on the PGA Tour, but he rebounded with top-25 finishes at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and WGC-Dell Match Play. His form was eventually rewarded when Grace claimed a maiden PGA Tour win at the RBC Heritage. To prove it was no fluke, the George resident backed it up with a top-10 finish at the Valero Texas Open to crack the top-10 ranked players in the world, albeit for a short time.
Grace has had a limited schedule this season and his performances have been good quality, thus he finds himself eighth on the European’s Tour Race to Dubai and 29th on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings, both good enough to get the into each tour’s season-ending tournaments. Making the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour must be one of Grace’s goals for the season, given the prestigious nature of the event that puts together the top 30 players on Tour at the end of the season for an exhibition-like event.
His current form, coupled with the uncanny similarities between himself and a youthful Els, mean that it would not surprise South African fans if Grace claimed his maiden major title in similar fashion to The Big Easy 22 years ago.