FOR a third straight day, Branden Grace, the coming man of South African and, perhaps, world golf was the talk of the Dunhill Links, some storied names of the professional game queuing up to pay tribute to this apparently nerveless 24-year-old Pretorian as he met the fierce challenge of Carnoustie, holed everything in a battling 69 and finished the day with a four-shot lead with the last round to come at St Andrews.
In the aftermath of a day when Grace refused to buckle despite scrambling around Carnoustie, Padraig Harrington looked over at the leaderboard and said that of all the golfers in the world right now the one he would most like to play with is Grace. Soon after, Ernie Els, whose foundation was important in the development of the young man, said his fellow South African was good enough to win an Open championship. These are the kinds of things you hear about Grace, who electrified his challenge this week with his opening round of 60 at Kingsbarns.
The chasing pack, led by the impressive Dane, and surely future Ryder Cup player, Thorbjorn Olesen, would have looked on yesterday’s third round as an opportunity to reel him in, but they couldn’t quite do it, Olesen inching into Grace’s overnight lead by just one shot despite playing at Kingsbarns where a charge is possible. Olesen shot 68 to Grace’s 69 on “Carnasty” as he called it.
“I didn’t really play particularly well,” he said, “but I got it around. Mentally, this course does it to you. It just hits you mentally. Everybody calls it Carnasty and the name says it all. I think if I keep hitting the ball like I am and make the putts like I am then anything is possible. I’ve dreamt of picking up the trophy on that bridge on the 18th.”
In his third round, Grace was steaming along with a six-shot lead at one point thanks to three birdies in a row on 12, 13 and 14 before coming a cropper on 15 with a double bogey. The measure of the player’s confidence, however, was seen on 18, a brute which he birdied by way of a soft gap wedge and another holed putt. “I was actually nervous playing that hole,” he said. “Just thinking about that hole makes me nervous. Finishing with a birdie was a bonus.”
Apart from Olesen, he’s got Alex Noren and Fredrik Andersson Hed five shots adrift, with Stephen Gallacher six shots back. Gallacher, though, will have floated away from Kingsbarns having shot 65. All of them, you fancy, have far too much ground to make up on Grace, a guy who seems to relish the role of front-runner. You would have had to search long and hard in the locker rooms of the three venues in this championship to find somebody who reckoned that Grace would be caught. The evidence suggests the title will be in his hands this evening.
Grace’s story has been told over the last few days but it’s worth repeating. A year ago he was a Challenge Tour player, unheralded and seemingly going nowhere with a world ranking outside of the top 300.
In the last 12 months, though, he has won four times – three on the European tour as well as last week’s victory in the Sunshine Tour’s Vodacom Origins of Golf event at Fancourt in his native South Africa. He has now broken into the top 50. Today he is going for the double-double, namely, the second time this year he will have won back-to-back titles. “I don’t know him whatsoever, so I’d really like to play with him,” said Harrington. “This is a guy who gets in the lead and just keeps on going, which is a tremendous trait to have. We all wish we had that ability that when things are going for us we keep going forward and not fall. I would say 99.9 per cent of golfers when they get in the lead stall-up and the field catches them. He ain’t one of those.
“We were discussing him out on the golf course and I would say there’s probably nobody else in golf at the moment that I would like to play with more. I want to see what he’s like. I’m curious to see what makes him tick and see if I can learn from him. He could be a great putter, great mentally, a great ball-striker, I have no idea. Anybody can win once, but it’s quite impressive how he’s winning and he’s doing it a number of times.”
More plaudits from Els, who shot 65 around St Andrews but still trails his countryman by 12 shots. “I remember winning the South African Open in Port Elizabeth and he was top amateur there. I guess that was four or five years ago. He’s always been a quality player and he’s really come on now. He’s a world contender now. Wherever he plays, he’s got a chance to win. He’s got a lot of speed in his swing. Fortunately for him he hits it nice and low and it runs for ever. He could well even win an Open Championship, he’s that good.”
For the heroes of Medinah, this has proven a tournament too far, particularly for Paul Lawrie who missed the cut thanks to a putter that refused to behave itself. “I played magnificently, but putted like an idiot,” said one of the giants of the Ryder Cup. “Today was a joke. I missed seven or eight putts inside ten feet.” To be fair, Lawrie’s had enough joy for one week. Grace’s turn again, most probably.