By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Branden Grace of South Africa introduced himself to the famed, and usually feared, Bear Trap very early on Tuesday morning, birdieing his way through that hazardous section of the Champion Course at PGA National en route to a 5-under 65 and an early tie for the tournament lead with Graham DeLaet.
Grace, 24, who was playing his first competitive round at The Honda Classic, knew the famous three-hole stretch -- the 173-yard 15th, the 405-yard 16th and 185-yard 17th holes -- only by reputation. He had never seen them before playing a practice round plus nine holes this week, and asked fellow South African, Charl Schwartzel, about them last week during the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championbship.
“He said, ‘Listen, the four finishing holes are quite a beast out there,’” Grace said. “So I was a little bit nervous coming here, and today I thought just, you know, what's going to happen around that corner?”
What happened was that Grace, who had bogeyed the 10th hole (his first), flew right under radar to take advantage of benign conditions -- light winds out of the northwest, helping on all three holes. He hit it to a foot at the 15th, made a 17-footer at the 16th and an 19-footer at the 17th. For good measure, he birdied the 561-yard, par-5 18th, chipping up from the right bank to 7-feet and making it to go out in 32.
If such a thing is possible, Grace “quietly” won four times on the European Tour last year. But he won’t be flying under radar much longer, if at all. One of seven South African players currently competing on TOUR, Grace hopes to become a regular PGA TOUR member this year. He can do that by finishing the year among the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings (he is currently 30th) or by finishing among the top 125 on the money list.
Either way, his odds look good. His European Tour wins in 2012 proved he belongs among the game’s elite. He won twice in January, first at the Joburg Open, then in a playoff over Ernie Els and Retief Goosen at the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt. He shot 21-under to win the Volvo China Open in April then 22-under to win the Dunhill Links in October, opening with a round of 60 at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
His planned U.S. schedule so far this year is next week at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral, the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard two weeks later and, he hopes at the Shell Houston Open two weeks before The Masters. He will play THE PLAYERS Championship in May, head back to Europe for two tournaments and then return for The Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance in June.