HARTFORD, Conn. – The deadly coronavirus has had devastating effects on millions of people for more than a year, even in the golf world.
Branden Grace’s father Peter Grace died five weeks ago after a month-long fight with complications associated with COVID-19, so his one-stroke victory Sunday in the Puerto Rico Open thanks to an eagle-birdie finish elicited an expected emotional ending.
“This morning I had a tear in the car when I was talking to my wife,” said Grace, making his tournament debut. “It was an emotional day. I thought about him a hell of a lot out there, especially the last tee shot. I was really struggling the last hole because I knew he was watching over me. I knew he was guiding me.”
Grace holed a bunker shot for eagle 2 at the 17th hole and then made a 5-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th to close with a bogey-free, 6-under-par 66 for a 72-hole total of 19-under 269, one better than Jhonattan Vegas at wind-swept Grand Reserve Country Club in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
“It’s been a very tough couple of years and a tough couple of months,” said Grace, 32, whose only other PGA Tour win was the 2016 RBC Classic. “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.”
Vegas, of Venezuela, birdied the 18th hole for 65-270, one better than Puerto Rican Rafael Campos and Grayson Murray, each of whom shot 70. Vegas birdied four of the five holes to notch his best showing since 2017, while Campos had his career-best finish on the PGA Tour.
Grace arrived at the 17th tee trailing clubhouse leader Vegas by a stroke and not sure to do on the reachable par-4. His father, who ran a restaurant and shop in Knysna, gave Branden his first golf clubs when he was a young boy growing up in South Africa and instilled in his son that he shouldn’t be the type of player to lay up. So Branden didn’t and delivered the shot of the week.
Grace drove into the right bunker on the 17th hole, which was playing 300 yards to the front of the green with the tees moved well forward.
“That was a tough bunker shot,” Grace said. “And to play it perfectly, just get it with just enough check and managed to get it to roll out and 5 or 6 feet to go, I knew it was in. So that was obviously fortunate.”
When his 80-foot shot dropped in for the eagle, Grace raised his sand wedge in the air with his left hand. When he retrieved his ball from the cup, he looked to the sky and his eyes began to well up.
“I looked up and said, ‘Just give me the strength for one more hole, just a couple more good swings,’ ” Grace said. “It was all him.”
Grace also hit a greenside bunker at the 18th hole, blasted to 6 feet and made the winning putt.
“Fortunately, I was in the second bunker,” Grace said, “so I could really just get it up on the slope and just get it to run out a little bit and manage to play it perfectly.”
The stellar finish capped a long road back for Grace. Five years ago, he was a Top-10 player in the world, winner of seven European Tour titles and the one on the PGA Tour. He also performed impressively in several 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 in University Place, Wash., 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 Golf Course in Southport, England, 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.
But Grace’s career soon started going in the other direction. From 2019 through the end of 2020, he missed the cut in 23 of 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 midway 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 in San Francisco the following week as a result of the required 10-day quarantine.
Grace returned the week after the PGA, but things took a worse turn when his father 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 Grace’s thoughts again.
“My wife told me this morning, he’s with me every shot of the way,” Branden said. “Every step of the way and every swing of the way, he is going to be looking at me.”
Dad would have been mighty proud of the championship fashion in which Grace finished, hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation in windy conditions. The victory got Grace into this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, next month’s Players Championship, the PGA Championship and Memorial Tournament in May, the 2022 Sentry Tournament of Champions and secured his PGA Tour card through the 2022-23 season.
“My father gave me my first golf club,” said Grace, who vaulted from 147th to 83rd in the Official World Golf Rankings. “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.”
After several difficult weeks of grieving, Branden fulfilled his dream again and earned some peace while honoring his father with his version of Amazing Grace.