Fellow South African Ernie Els called Branden Grace on Sunday following the 48th RBC Heritage to give him congratulations, and an “I told you so.”
The two had coffee Wednesday at Els rented home for the week and discussed the upcoming tournament. “He told me this is one event that I’m going to win a couple of times in my career,” Grace said.
Grace is halfway to fulfilling the World Golf Hall of Famer’s prognostication after shooting a 5-under-par 66 in the final round Sunday at Harbour Town Golf Links to claim a two-shot victory over Luke Donald and Russell Knox, who closed with a 67.
Grace began the final round three shots behind Donald and claimed his first PGA Tour title with a 9-under 275 in just his second Heritage start.
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“I like this golf course, I like the way it plays, and like the type of golf I have to play around it,” Grace said. “You really have to see your shots. You have to hit a couple of different shots, not shots that you hit often. It worked out and I’m super stoked.”
Els has played in the Heritage 17 times and knew it would fit Grace’s skills.
Donald also loves the Pete Dye design, but it was another near-miss at Harbour Town for the Englishman, as he’s now finished in the top three in six of the past eight Heritage tournaments, including four increasingly painful runner-up finishes. He could muster just two birdies in an even-par 71 Sunday.
“I was expecting someone to play well, and it was a great round from Branden,” Donald said.
Grace, 27, was ranked 14th in the world entering the Heritage and built his ranking based largely on the European Tour, as he has seven career European Tour victories, including one this year, and is sixth on the tour’s 2016 Race to Dubai standings.
He finished in the top 20 in six of his nine PGA or European tour events following the Heritage last year, including a tie for third at the PGA Championship and tie for fourth in the U.S. Open, and made the decision late last year to play the PGA Tour relatively full time. The Heritage was his 51st PGA Tour start.
“This was the next hurdle, to try to get a win under the belt on the PGA Tour, and now that I have, I know I can win out here,” Grace said. “Now I can really just tick this one off the box and head into maybe the next couple of majors and trying to win it knowing that I have won out here before.”
Grace took a three-shot lead with seven birdies and a bogey in the first 13 holes, then held on with four pars and a bogey over the final five holes.
He birdied the first two holes to quickly pull within a shot of the lead with a 13-foot putt and chip to 3 feet on the par-5 second. He bogeyed the fourth, but responded with a 250-yard approach to 25-feet and a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fifth hole, then added birdies on sixth and ninth holes with wedges to within 4 feet, and the 12th and 13th holes with putts inside 12 feet.
“When I made those two on 12 and 13, I really thought I was in a good position and now I need to hold on,” Grace said. “After that … I was just trying to eliminate the mistakes coming in.”
A par on the par-4 16th hole that included two bunker shots was a particularly key save, as Grace found the longer bunker on the left side of the 16th hole off the drive and left his second shot in the bunker near the green. He blasted a 90-foot bunker shot to 12 feet and rolled in the par putt.
“[I thought] if I can get it inside 10 feet or 12 feet, I’ve got a good chance of making it because I’ve been putting so nicely and running the ball so good today,” Grace said. “But that was really a big turning point in the game to make that putt.”
Grace had a flashback on the 16th of last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where he was tied for the lead in the final round before hitting a drive out of bounds on the 16th hole. “When I hit that bad shot on 16 I thought, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Grace said.
He made bogey with a missed 8-foot par putt after finding a right bunker on the par-3 17th hole but found the 18th fairway and fat part of the 18th green to two-putt and secure the title barring a Donald hole-out from the 18th fairway.
Entering the Heritage, Grace had a pair of top-25 finishes this season including a tie for fifth in the WCG-HSBC Champions in China before the turn of the calendar, but in 2016 he had just missed two cuts and two finishes outside the top 20 in stroke-play tournaments, and was coming off a missed cut at the Masters.
“The last couple of weeks or last couple of months it’s been pretty tough. I’ve been playing some good golf, but just not finishing golf,” Grace said.
Playing on a sponsor exemption last year, Grace tied for seventh in his Heritage debut and shot four rounds under par.
“This is one tournament that I really wanted to come back to,” Grace said. “When they said plan your schedule, this one was right up there. This is one event that I really wanted to come play, and I just want to thank them very much for giving me the opportunity when they did.”
He intends to maintain more of an international schedule than many PGA Tour members, including events on the European Tour and Sunshine Tour in South Africa.
Donald has held 54-hole Heritage leads in 2011, 2014 and now 2016. He didn’t shoot better than 2-under 69 in any of those final rounds and was beaten by rounds of 64 by both Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar and Sunday’s 66 by Grace.
“I think I’ve got to put myself three or four behind on Sunday. That seems to be the sweet spot. Leading doesn’t seem to be working out for me,” Donald said.
Knowing he would need to make biridies to close out the win, particularly based on the previous two times he held a 54-hole lead, Donald made just two Sunday, and they were both immediately followed by bogeys.
He birdied the seventh hole with a 25-foot putt but bogeyed the eighth with a drive into a left-side water hazard, then birdied the ninth with a wedge to 3 feet but bogeyed the 10th hole with a shot into the right bunker from 180 yards in the fairway and missed 13-foot par putt.
“When I made birdie on 9, I made bogey on 10 and lost some momentum there and couldn’t quite get it back,” Donald said.
When an 18-foot birdie putt lipped out on the par-5 15th hole that would have pulled him within two shots and possibly put some pressure on Grace on the final couple holes.
“I played okay today, I just didn’t quite make the putts when I needed to,” Donald said. “I had some chances. I had a good chance on 11, on 13, 15, even 16 and 17 I also had chances, but it wasn’t to be.”
The runner-up finish is Donald’s first top-20 finish in 11 events this season, and his previous best finish in the past two seasons was a tie for seventh, as he dropped to 95th in the world rankings entering the Heritage.
“This is a great step in the right direction,” Donald said. “I’m really positive about my game going forward, positive about the way I handled it today. I didn’t quite get it done. But I’m excited about playing next week.”
Grace will be there at the Valero Texas Open as well, as a first-time PGA Tour champion.