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Branden Grace honors the memory of his father with a fantastic finish in Puerto Rico

February 28, 2021
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Andy Lyons

Branden Grace celebrates his birdie on the 18th green to win during the final round of the Puerto Rico Open.

Branden Grace arrived at the 17th tee of Grande Reserve Country Club in Puerto Rico on Sunday trailing clubhouse leader Jhonattan Vegas by a stroke and not sure what to do on the reachable par 4. His father, Peter, who gave him his first golf club when he was a young boy growing up in South Africa, instilled in him that he shouldn’t be the type of player to lay up. So he didn’t.

Then he delivered the shot of the week at the Puerto Rico Open.

After driving into a greenside bunker, Grace deftly pitched just onto the putting surface, then watched as his ball rolled into the hole for an eagle and a one-shot lead. After he retrieved his ball from the cup, the 32-year-old South African looked to the sky and his eyes began to well up.

Five weeks ago, Peter Grace passed away after a month-long battle with COVID-19.

“I looked up and I said, Just give me the strength for one more hole, just a couple more good swings,” he said. “And it was all him.”

One hole later, Grace got up and down from the sand for birdie on the par-5 18th to cap a round of 66 to finish at 19-under 269, one stroke better than Vegas. The victory was Grace’s second on the PGA Tour, the other coming in 2016 at the RBC Heritage.

“It’s been a very tough couple of years, and a tough couple of months,” Grace said. “It’s just nice to—obviously with all the support back home with my wife and my son and my family and everybody back home, and all that we have been through, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.”

It’s been a long road to get there.

Five years ago, Grace was a top-10 player in the world, winner of seven titles on the European Tour and another on the PGA Tour. He also performed impressively in a fistful of major championships, stringing together five top-10s in 10 majors between 2015 and 2017. Among them were the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where he held a share of the lead through 54 holes and was tied for the lead on the 16th hole until he blocked his drive out of bounds. At the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where he became the first player to shoot 62 in a major on his way to a tie for sixth. He also played in three Presidents Cups and went 5-0 for the week in the 2015 matches in South Korea.

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Andy Lyons

Branden Grace celebrates his eagle from the bunker on the 17th hole during the final round of the Puerto Rico Open.

Soon, though, his career started going the other direction.

From 2019 through the end of 2020, Grace missed the cut in 23 of his 52 worldwide starts. Other priorities took over and he was also adjusting to life as a new dad after his wife, Nieke, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Roger, in April 2018.

“Not that you lose interest, things just get tough,” Grace said. “You get down on yourself. And we have had some big life changes the last couple of years, and maybe it just takes a while to get used to that and for it to sink in and really gather yourself around it.”

Then last August, Grace was forced to withdraw halfway through the Barracuda Championship after testing positive for coronavirus. He was tied for second at the time and also missed the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park the following week as a result of the required 10-day quarantine.

Grace returned to playing the week after the PGA, but things took a worse turn when his father Peter contracted coronavirus late last year.

More than a third of all cases in Africa have been in South Africa and at the time the country had yet to begin a vaccination program. One of the mutations of the virus also originated in the country and there have been almost 50,000 deaths there since the start of the pandemic. On Jan. 21, Grace shared the news on Twitter that his father had passed away, saying, in part, “Words cannot describe the loss and heartache we feel. He was a rock in my life and career and I am going to miss him dearly.”

Sunday, his late father couldn’t escape his thoughts again.

“My wife also told me this morning, he’s with me every shot of the way,” Grace said. “Every step of the way and every swing of the way, he is going to be looking at me.”

And what a show it was.

With a bunched leader board that saw a handful of players jockeying near the top on the back nine on Sunday, including hometown favorite Rafael Campos and three-time tour winner Vegas, Grace delivered a memorable performance, hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens on a windswept afternoon.

The victory gets Grace into next month’s Players, the PGA Championship in May and secures his card for the next two years. It’s also one his late father would have enjoyed.

“He gave me my first golf club,” Grace said. “He has been there through thick and thin. He’s the one that pushed me to get a dream and to be a part of the dream and actually for me to give me the chance to make something of my dream.”