Playing in his first WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron this week, Branden Grace’s incredible ascent up the golfing food chain has been marked with a “dream” pairing over the first two days at Firestone Country Club after the South African was drawn alongside 14-time Major Champion Tiger Woods.
What a difference a year makes. Or to be more specific in Branden Grace’s case, what a difference nine months make.
Undoubtedly one of golf’s sensations of the year, the 24 year old South African has in just three quarters of a year gone from a middle-ranked – albeit highly promising – Challenge Tour Member to a multiple European Tour winner and a star of global interest.
And as if to exemplify his extraordinary rise up golf’s pecking order, Grace, who is this week making his debut at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, has been drawn to play the first two days of the tournament alongside one of the leading luminaries of the sport, 14-time Major Champion Tiger Woods.
“It is an awesome draw, definitely,” said Grace, in the midst of a Wednesday practice round with friends and compatriots Retief Goosen and Louis Oosthuizen. “I'd heard a rumour at the beginning of the week that that's what they were going to try to do because we're the only two guys that have won three times in the year. But I didn't really think it was going to happen.
“I played with Mickelson at the US Open, as well, so I think the experience is there, and obviously you're going to have a little bit of pressure playing with Woods but it’s something you just have to deal with.
“It's unreal, he's my idol. He's been my role model since I started playing golf so tomorrow is a little bit of a dream come true.”
Pretoria native Grace was on the cusp of gaining his European Tour playing rights last October ahead of the Challenge Tour’s showpiece final event, the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, holding at that time the 20th out of 20 cards available for a place in the top tier of European golf the following season, before a tied 30th finish in Italy saw him finish 24th in the season rankings, an agonising four places outside the graduation spots.
However, a successful trip to The European Tour’s daunting Qualifying School in northern Spain followed in early December, where Grace shrugged off his disappointment by seizing the 11th card at PGA Catalunya.
He hasn’t looked back since.
“It was just one of those things where I had worked really hard the whole year and just came a little bit short,” Grace reflected. “Obviously you're going to be a bit disappointed, but there was Tour School around the corner and I managed to get my card there. Now here I am about to tee it up with Tiger - it just shows you how much can change in such a short while.”
In just the second event of the 2012 season, Grace stormed to victory at the Joburg Open in his native South Africa, before making it a home double the following week when he overcame fellow countrymen Ernie Els and Goosen to claim a remarkable second title in as many weeks at the Volvo Golf Champions.
A third triumph in four months followed in April at the Volvo China Open with further impressive performances including a fifth place finish at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth helping him to accumulated season earnings of €1,355,241, over €1.3 million more than he amassed in 2011.
He may be currently sitting a very healthy ninth place in The 2012 Race to Dubai, but Grace insists his new-found status hasn’t changed the way he approaches every golf tournament.
He said: “I've been trying to do things exactly the same as I've always done them; I think that was a key when I won in those three events.
“Obviously the bigger the events, the more you want to do but you automatically put in more without even noticing it. But generally I’m just trying to stick to my game and stick to what's working.”
Grace made his maiden World Golf Championship appearance in March’s WGC-Cadillac Championship in Florida – finishing in a respectable tie for 35th place – and will next week make his debut at the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, and the affable South African is embracing every new experience.
“I think the course is only going to get trickier as the week goes on,” he commented. “It's still pretty wet out here, but the greens are running at 13 and a half already, so they're lightning out here.
“If you get on the wrong side of the pin, you're dead. But it's great; I've been playing in good company the last two days and in the practice rounds, so I’m trying to get a little bit of experience out of that and try to enjoy the experience.”
For Grace, though, going head-to-head with the world’s best in the searing summer heat in Akron is all a far cry from the chilly Championship Course at the Qualifying School in Girona where he celebrated his ascension just seven months ago.
“I promise you at the end of the last year I wouldn't have dreamt of playing with Tiger the first two rounds in the Bridgestone. It's one of those things, but it shows you if you stick your head down and keep grinding and keep playing, you never know what can happen.”