Grace Under Fire
The loss of Branden Grace's father hit hard, but resiliency shines through
March 14, 2022
By Ben Everill , PGATOUR.COM
- Branden Grace and his father Peter in 2016 at The Old Course. (Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Branden Grace was on a tropical island and in contention for a PGA TOUR title. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal situation, but he was in tears as he sat in his rental car before the final round of last year’s Puerto Rico Open.
His father, Peter, had died of COVID-19 just five weeks earlier, and the loss weighed especially heavy as Branden prepared to play. Branden described his dad as his “rock,” but that solid foundation was gone. Branden wouldn’t be able to call him before the round as he had done so many times before.
“I always phoned my dad before I played. That was our thing,” Branden said. “That day it hit me that it wasn’t happening anymore.”
The loss of Peter was the culmination of a difficult stretch when Grace also was struggling with the game that had made him one of the top-10 players in the world. He’d gone from contending in majors and winning around the world to struggling to make cuts, and now his biggest supporter was gone.
Grace’s wife, Nieke, told her husband that she could still draw strength from his father on that Sunday in Puerto Rico.
“We (were) all in tears and she just said, ‘Listen, he’s there every step of the way,’” Branden recalled. “Whenever you’re in doubt, smile and look up and just keep on going because he will be there.”
Grace started that final round one shot off the lead. He was still one back when he faced a crucial decision on the second-to- last hole, a drivable par-4 with a lake in front of the green. Grace could take the aggressive route or play it safe.
It was Peter Grace who helped his son make this important decision, just as he’d done so many times before. Peter Grace built Branden’s first club. He helped him decide to turn his sole focus on golf. And now he was helping Branden in one of the most important moments of his career.
“Dad always told me, ‘I don’t know how to play this game safe,’” Branden said. “So of course I thought I should go for it.”
Branden drove into a greenside bunker, but his ball came to rest on a downhill lie. It was an improbable shot, the one that easily could go astray, but Branden holed it for eagle to take a one-shot lead. He birdied the par-5 finishing hole, as well, to win by one.
Grace was in tears again, just as he’d been hours earlier, but for a different reason.
“You win and I’m making happy phone calls again,” he said. “Everybody is in tears. … It was magic.”
Phone calls had always played an important role in Branden Grace’s golf career. They were a source of positive reinforcement as he played a game that provides so much negative feedback. For as long as he could remember, from flip phones to smart phones, Grace called his father before every round he played.
Branden Grace with his father Peter and mother Lourenza in 2016 in Kingsbarns, Scotland. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
But, in recent years, phone calls had been the source of too much bad news. There was the one from his hero, Ernie Els, informing Branden that he wasn’t going to be on the 2019 Presidents Cup team. Grace called it “one of the worst moments of my career.” And it was over the phone that he was informed Peter had passed away last January from COVID-19.
It was Peter who built his son’s first club, a cut-down 3-iron that Branden used to hit balls around their farm. The family sheepdog happily served as Branden’s ball retriever.
Golf was one of several sports that Branden excelled in, and it was Peter who helped him make the difficult decision about which one to focus on. Grace agonized over the decision because in South Africa the most popular sports, like cricket and rugby, were team sports. To specialize in golf, he’d have to give up those dreams, and some friends, as his practice schedules became longer and isolated.
“When I was 14 my dad said that I can do anything with a ball if I put my mind to it but you kind of have to pick one, you can't do everything for the rest of your life and think you're going to be successful in all of them,” Grace recalls. “He said golf is the one you should do because I see more potential for you then you see yourself.”
It was advice that changed Branden’s life and led him to a successful career that’s included 13 wins around the world, six top-7 finishes in majors and appearances on three Presidents Cup teams. It was his omission from the most recent team, however, that was especially painful.
Branden Grace has known Ernie Els since childhood, when Grace was a member of the Fancourt Foundation squad that was co-founded by Els. The program was meant to help promising junior players realize their dreams. It played an important part in Grace’s career but also made the pain of being passed over by Els, the captain of the 2019 International Team, even worse.
“It was one of the worst moments in my career. I know I wasn't playing great golf at the time but I thought that the history I had at the Presidents Cup, and the fact that I've always been one that brings a lot of energy in a team situation like that, would help me,” Grace admits. “It was a kick in the guts. And I didn’t take it well at first. But it gave me an immediate attitude of I’ll show them.”
Grace has his sights on this year’s team, which is captained by another of his countrymen, Trevor Immelman. Returning to the top 30 in the world – Grace is currently ranked 93rd – also is a goal.
“I want to be on that team. I’m going to do everything I can to make it. And I feel with the changes I've made I’m going to play myself into the team.”
Grace started working with instructor Justin Parsons, who also coaches Louis Oosthuizen, recently. Using a U.S.-based coach has simplified his practice and given him consistent feedback, versus the occasional video call back to South Africa. Working with Parsons is one reason Grace thinks his peak is still ahead.
That’s saying something, considering what the 33-year-old has already accomplished. He’s one of just four men to go 5-0-0 in a Presidents Cup, doing so in 2015 after forming a successful pairing with Oosthuizen. He’s a two-time PGA TOUR winner and had a run of 10 majors where he finished sixth or better in half of them. He’s also the only man to shoot 62 in a major championship, which he did in the 2017 Open Championship.
Grace has fought through difficult times before. After quick success on the DP World Tour, he admits that he lost his focus and had to regain his card at Q-School for the 2012 season. He won four times that year, becoming the first player to earn his first four wins on that tour in the same year. He had two top-5 finishes in majors in both 2015 and 2016 and earned his first PGA TOUR win at the 2016 RBC Heritage en route to reaching a career-best 10th in the world ranking.
Grace was struggling before the 2019 Presidents Cup – he had just one top-10 in a stroke play event before Els submitted his picks – and he missed half his cuts in 2020. But he followed his win in Puerto Rico last year with a fourth-place finish at the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday and was part of a six-man playoff at the Wyndham Championship in August, which was won by Kevin Kisner. His 55th-place finish in last year’s FedExCup was his best in five years.Branden Grace with his father Peter in 2016. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
If he can find that form, he’ll undoubtedly be an asset to an International Team that is trying to build on the momentum from 2019, when the International Team took the lead into the final day before narrowly falling, 16-14.
Immelman’s squad will face the U.S. Team on Sept. 22-25 at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I really hope he finds his top form again and I think he can,” Immelman said. “He’s been there and done it all. He has always been a great match player because he has that bulldog mentality and he's just tough to beat.”
Grace’s old friend Oosthuizen figures to be one of the linchpins of this year’s International squad. He’s one of six potential International Team members who rank in the top 25 of the world ranking, along with Cameron Smith, Hideki Matsuyama, Abraham Ancer, Joaquin Niemann and Sungjae Im.
Oosthuizen hopes a reunion with Grace is in the cards at Quail Hollow.
“I know it hurt him not to be there last time but I also know it motivated him,” Oosthuizen says. “He has what it takes to push his way into Trevor’s team at the end of the year. He’s got the type of personality that can come back from challenges and likely come back better from them.
“Gracie is such a positive guy on the golf course and he never gets down and it makes for a great partner. I could hit the worst shot in the world and he immediately is smiling and saying, ‘Hey bro, watch this, I’m going to hit the best chip you’ve ever seen.’ We had a great team in Melbourne but he was still definitely missed.”
After overcoming tragedy, Grace wants to keep history from repeating itself. He’s looking for a happy phone call this time.