• Out of Bounds

Grace under no pressure heading to Augusta

Farrell Evans
March 20, 2013
Branden Grace has earned an Augusta National invite © PA Photos

For much of the 20th century, South Africa was best known for its murderous apartheid regime. Then in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, and the country began the long process of healing and growing as one nation for all people.

Sports have played a major role in bringing together a country that had been banned from most international competitions since the 1960s.

Since the first non-racial elections were held in 1994, the sports-crazy nation of nearly 51 million people has hosted world cups in rugby, golf, cricket, soccer and the 2003 Presidents Cup.

South Africa's pro golfers have done their part to repair their country's image around the world by taking 22 major championships; nine of these have come in the post-apartheid era. A South African has won at least one major in each of the past three years and in four of the past five. They've also taken six of the first 12 events of 2013 on the European Tour.

One of the most poignant moments of the 2012 Masters came in the clubhouse on Easter Sunday night in an exchange between two South African players. Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, consoled his close friend, Louis Oosthuizen, who had just lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson. Their plaintive moods underscored the sadness that many felt back in Cape Town, George, Johannesburg and Durban.

But then Ernie Els won the Open Championship in July at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. In his victory speech, Els praised Mandela, the father of the nation, who had turned 94 earlier that week.

Since Gary Player became the first international winner of the Masters in 1961, it's been the dream of every South African golfer to depart the grounds of the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece with the green jacket. Only Trevor Immelman in 2008 and Schwartzel in 2011 have been able to bring the iconic blazer home to South Africa since Player won the last of his three Masters in 1978. Els has famously had close calls at Augusta with two second-place finishes in 2002 and 2004.

Branden Grace is the latest super-talented South African with aspirations of winning golf's first major. In less than a month, the 24-year-old Pretoria native will appear in his first Masters. Grace earned his way to Augusta by finishing in the top 50 in the world rankings at the end of last year. He rose so high by winning four times on the European Tour in 2012, including the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa, where he beat his countrymen, Els and Retief Goosen, in a playoff.

Grace watched every shot of the final round of the 2012 Masters from a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, where he was playing in the Malaysian Open. It was around 2 a.m. local time when he got a telephone call from a friend in South Africa.

"Did you see what just happened?" the friend said.

"See what?" Grace said.

Oosthuizen had just made an albatross at the par-five second hole to take the lead, but the live coverage in Malaysia was several seconds behind the feed in South Africa.

"It was just awesome," Grace said. "But it was a really tough finish for Louie."

Grace, who lives part of the year in West Palm Beach, Florida, will make his debut appearance in the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week at Bay Hill in Orlando. He is concentrating on the PGA Tour through the Players Championship in May in an effort to earn his PGA Tour card.

If Grace, a non-member, can make enough money in 12 events to equal what the 125th player on the 2012 money list earned, he can secure his card and play an unlimited number of tournaments for the remainder of the season. Through three events, he has made $112,260; last year, Kevin Chappell finished 125th on the money list with $647,510.

"This year is really a first for me in everything," Grace said. "It's a lot to look forward to. I want to really concentrate on the US tour so I can go back to Europe in a different frame of mind."

He's headed to Augusta for practice rounds as soon as he leaves Bay Hill. In the two weeks leading up to the first major of the year, he will make trips to Augusta National with Els and Oosthuizen, who are sure to share their notes and perspective with their younger countryman.

Grace has only seen the course on television, so he's very interested in getting a close-up view of the severely undulating greens and some of the slopes and mounds in the fairways. He's been working on certain shot shapes that you need at Augusta, including the ability to hit a draw off the tee.

"I can draw the ball off the tee but that's not one of my favourite shapes," Grace said. "I tend to stick more with a left to right shape. But when my game is on and the swing is feeling good, I hit the ball very straight.

"I think if you hit the ball straight, any golf course suits you. But when I need to hit the draw off the tee I like to hit three-wood. I can still get it out there quite a long way."

Grace's caddie is Zack Rasego, a 49-year-old black South African who previously worked for Oosthuizen when he won the Open Championship in 2010 at St. Andrews. Rasego grew up near Sun City, where after school he would run nine miles to caddie at the Gary Player Country Club. After Grace's spectacular 2012 season, Rasego was honored with the Caddie of the Year Award during the WGC-HSBC Champions in November.

2012 was an incredible year for Grace © Getty Images

"Zach obviously has a lot of victories and experience," Grace said. "He's definitely helped me around the corners and the edges. He's been a big help."

Grace has no memory of the apartheid regime that shaped Rasego's early life. He mostly knows a world of reconciliation and calm nurtured by men like Mandela and Els.

"When I grew up playing golf, I had some good mates who weren't white and we are all good friends to this day," Grace said. "It's been awesome to see the country evolve. Ernie doesn't just say those things to say them. He really believes them. He tries to do his part with golf by trying to help the unprivileged kids. Everybody tries to help out."

Grace and Rasego got together before the 2011 European Tour school. In their second event in 2012, they won the Joburg Open.

"Everything changed with the first win at the Joburg Open," Grace said. "All the stress about money and the worry about retaining my card was lifted and I just ran with it."

The very next week at the Volvo Golf Champions he would go on to beat two of his idols, Goosen and Els, in George, South Africa, near where his family moved when he was 10 years old.

It's difficult to top beating two of your heroes in front of a home crowd, but Grace would have two more wins on the European Tour schedule last year, including the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October, where he shot a 12-under-par 60 in the first round at Kingsbarns in Scotland.

Grace has played holes 15, 16, 17 and 18 at Augusta National over and over in his head.

"I think you always think of the finishing stretch," he said. "You always try to think of the key holes and prepare those in your mind."

Right now he's got a lot on his mind. Down the road he can see a berth onto the International team for the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village in October. He can imagine joining full-time the strong South African contingent on the PGA Tour.

But he's trying to give his full concentration to these next few weeks. Player, Immelman and Schwartzel have shown him that a South African can win perhaps golf's grandest prize and that gives him comfort.

"I'm not excited as I should be yet," Grace said. "I'm sure that when I get to Augusta it's all going to kick in. It's the tournament you have always wanted to play and it's here now. So I'm sure it's going to be something special."

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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