PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Branden Grace held his arms about 3 feet apart to describe a relic he found during a recent trip home to South Africa.
It was his first golf club.
“We lived on a farm outside Pretoria and I was ball crazy. A rugby ball, soccer ball, tennis ball, golf ball, anything I could do,” Grace said. “So my dad cut down this 3-iron. We were fortunate. We had a sheep dog. So every time I would hit the ball, the dog would retrieve it. I told my dad, ‘It would have been nice if you had cut down a wedge.’ That 3-iron was hard to hit.”
It had been so long since the 27-year-old Grace had seen this club that he forgot how small it was.
And it was a reminder of how far it has taken him.
Golf is either promoting a modern “Big Three” or a “Big Four” at the moment, depending on the week and the most recent results. Just outside that group is Grace, who was one bad swing at the U.S. Open from already being part of the conversation.
He was tied for the lead with Jordan Spieth on the 16th tee at Chambers Bay when he was caught between a driver and a 3-wood. He decided on a 3-wood with a hard draw to get to the front left portion of the green. He had hit that shot beautifully on the range that morning, and on the par-5 eighth hole earlier in the round.
“I wanted to start it on the right side and draw it up on the side of the green,” he said. “I came out of it. I flushed it, I just didn’t get the shape.”
The ball shot out to the right and stayed there, over the fence, beyond the railroad tracks, out of bounds, leading to a double bogey. He wound up two shots behind, a forgotten contender at the end of the day when Spieth won his second straight major and Dustin Johnson suffered another major setback.
He has moved on, quietly, but in the right direction.
Grace finished third in the PGA Championship behind the duel between Jason Day and Spieth. And then he was the International star in a tight battle in South Korea at the Presidents Cup, becoming the first International player to win all five matches since Shigeki Maruyama in 1998.
In a crucial fourballs match, conditions so dark that Grace had no idea Louis Oosthuizen was in the water, he hit a 3-wood from 263 yards into a chilly wind that cleared a bunker and settled on the edge of the green that led to a 1-up victory. It’s what led Oosthuizen to say of his longtime friend, “No moment is too big for him.”
Grace won the Qatar Masters in January for his ninth victory worldwide, and two weeks later he reached No. 10 in the world for the first time.
But there is work to be done, and it starts with winning on the strongest tour in the world.
He has been coming over to America for the last four years for World Golf Championships and majors and a few sponsor exemptions. His performance in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship allowed him to take up a full PGA Tour card for the first time this year.
The next step for him is to win in America, and his close call at Chambers Bay and his 15-under par at Whistling Straits indicates to him that he’s not far off.
And as Oosthuizen suggested, no moment is too big.
Grace broke through as a 23-year-old in a manner he could never have dreamed while whacking that sawed-off 3-iron on the farm, or even during his junior days as a pupil in the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation.
He won the Joburg Open for his first professional win in January 2012, which earned him a spot in the Volvo Golf Champions for European Tour winners the following week at Fancourt. He wound up in a playoff with Els and Retief Goosen, his two golfing idols growing up, and he beat them both.
During the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this year, Grace was on stage with Els for a Q&A, and both were asked the greatest moment of their careers. Els, who is in the World Hall of Fame with four majors, said it was meeting the late Nelson Mandela.
“I said, ‘I didn’t have the privilege of meeting someone like that, so my best moment was beating you and Goose,’” Grace said. “Ernie took it on a good note.”
Grace is No. 12 in the world going into the Valspar Championship, with the Dell Match Play in two weeks during his road to the Masters. He is an aggressive player, and found that he has played too cautiously his last three times at Augusta National. He is emboldened by his play in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
And he is happy with his place in the game, even if not many are paying much attention.