AKRON, Ohio – At 24 years old, South Africa’s Branden Grace had the good fortune of spending his formative years watching Tiger Woods dominate the golf world. Woods became Grace’s idol.
So imagine Grace’s delight when he saw the pairings for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the name next to his was “Tiger Woods.”
Grace was guaranteed to play at least the first two rounds with Woods at Firestone Country Club. But when they both signed off for 2-over 142′s at the end of Friday’s second round, Grace knew he might very well get a third round with Woods.
That was indeed the case, and when they came off the 18th hole Saturday, Grace had not only held his own against Woods, he had gotten the better of him. Woods fired a 2-under 68 to get himself back to even par for the tournament, while Grace shot a 4-under 66 to move to 2-under for the tournament.
Grace played brilliantly on the front nine, going out in 30. He played is first 10 holes at 6-under before bogeys at Nos. 13 and 16.
“I think (Friday) was pretty much alright as well,” said Grace when asked if he was able to settle in more after getting two rounds with Woods. “Just at first it was a little bit hectic. Obviously the first time playing with Tiger was an experience on its own, but the crowds and everything have been great.”
This has been a breakout year for Grace, who has won three times on the European Tour. He and Woods, in fact, are the only two players who have won three times on their respective tours this year. Grace also has a win on the Sunshine Tour on his career resume.
If he wasn’t familiar to the American audience before, he certainly has some recognition now. He was followed – even if by proxy – by thousands of fans and a host of TV cameras and reporters over the past three days.
Meanwhile, his friends and family back home in South Africa were filling up his voice mail and e-mail with questions about his encounter with Woods.
“It’s been very good,” said Grace laughing. “Everybody just wants to know how it’s been and how he is as a player and things like that. It’s nice to know that he’s everything I thought he would be.”
Grace is hoping his three rounds with Woods – they won’t be paired for Sunday’s final round – aren’t the end of his highlights for 2012.
Next week, he has the U.S. PGA Championship where he looks to make it three of three in cuts at majors this year. He’s also at No. 9 on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai rankings and within 500,000 Euros of the lead.
With so much accomplished in such a short time, it’s easy to forget that Grace is just getting started. Perhaps he and Woods will be paired together again somewhere down the road. Perhaps in a major.
It would be an experience Grace would welcome all over again.
“Having played with him three days in a row, it’s been unreal,” he said. “I’ve learned a hell of a lot from playing with him, the way he plays shots and the way he handles himself.
“He’s the best in the world, and I think people who really criticize him are wrong. He’s one hell of a guy and pretty much the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”
– Chuck Curti