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Grace Brings Fighting Spirit To Major Quest

by Michael Vlismas - November 13, 2017

SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA | After 54 holes of the Nedbank Golf Challenge, Branden Grace was 6-over par for the front nine of the Gary Player Country Club. His second round included a front nine of 42. But he was only three strokes off the lead at the end of three days.

That’s because each day Grace followed up a front nine that had the vultures in the nearby Pilanesberg Game Reserve circling above him with a remarkable display of scoring on the back. He was 11 under for the back nine after 54 holes.

And for one simple reason.

“I’m a grinder and I’m a fighter,” Grace said, explaining how he’d managed to turn it around each day.

The 29-year-old South African could’ve explained his fight back in a myriad of technical ways.

Gary Player’s course, which he built in the late ’70s as the anchor to hotel magnate Sol Kerzner’s Sun City resort, sits in the crater of an ancient and thankfully extinct volcano.

The result is swirling winds that make it easier for players to pick the winning roulette number in the nearby casino than select the right clubs on certain holes here.

The greens are small and shaped like four-leaf clovers, which means the pins can be tucked away in some tricky corners. And then there’s the African sun, which during the Nedbank Golf Challenge turns “Africa’s Major” into as much of a test of physical endurance as technical skill.

But Grace was spot-on with his assessment of himself. When conditions are at their hardest, Grace will grind it out like one of South Africa’s best in this department, double US Open champion Retief Goosen.

But what makes Grace an even more exciting prospect in terms of being heavily tipped to be South Africa’s next major winner is that, unlike Goosen, Grace brings a greater level of aggression to it as well.

“I’ve always been pretty aggressive in my sport,” Grace said. “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 and 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.”

It’s a quality of Grace’s that even caught the attention of Tiger Woods, who was paired with Grace during the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. On the 14th hole, Grace hit a shot that so impressed Woods that the 14-time major winner walked over to his playing partner and asked him how he did it.

“I’d hit my tee shot into the fairway bunker on the right,” Grace recalled. “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 just hit it out. But at that stage I was about 5- or 6-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 7- or 8-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.”

It’s this kind of mindset that makes Grace a perfect fit for the majors.

In 2015-16, he had four top-five finishes in the majors, and this year he tied sixth in the Open Championship while becoming the first man ever to shoot 62 in a major, in the third round at Royal Birkdale.

But what makes Grace an even more exciting prospect in terms of being heavily tipped to be South Africaís next major winner is that ... Grace brings a greater level of aggression to it as well.

That had been Grace’s best finish of 2017 before he won on Sunday. Still, he’s won on the PGA Tour, the European Tour and South Africa’s Sunshine Tour, and reached a career high of 10th on the Official World Golf Ranking last year.

Grace wants to focus on majors now, and indeed that’s where he needs to make his next step up in the game.

“That’s where I want to keep knocking,” he said.

On Sunday in the Nedbank Golf Challenge, after Grace holed the winning putt, two major champions in Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel showered him with champagne, and nine-time major winner Gary Player, the tournament host, threw his arms around him.

So after “Africa’s Major,” what about the other four in 2018?

“Definitely,” said Grace.

When he was winning four times on the European Tour in 2012, triple major champion Pádraig Harrington listed Grace as the one golfer he’d most like to play with. “I want to find out what’s in his head,” he said.

After his win at Sun City, Grace gave the answer.

“This will be in my head because I had to do it on a tough day and I had to pull out the best in myself. It’s great to know that I could do that in ‘Africa’s Major.’ And that I can do it again.”

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