RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – Grand Reserve Country Club on the northern shores of Puerto Rico is one of those postcard-ready, oceanfront courses that can lead a man’s eye to wander, and his mind to drift. There are choppy whitecaps crashing into the beach on one side, and the majestic El Yunque rain forest standing watch at the other.
South African Branden Grace never did get distracted. Sunday at the Puerto Rico Open, he had blinders on during an incredible closing round of 6-under 66, going bogey-free in the wind. Grace’s thunderclap eagle-birdie finish led him to a 19-under 269 total and his second PGA TOUR victory, his first since the 2016 RBC Heritage.
Tied for the lead at 18 under headed down the par-5 18th, Grace reached a front bunker in two to set up one last magic shot from the sand. He flew his shot about halfway to the hole from 80 feet and watched it release over a ridge and roll out to 5 feet. Birdie. Grace clipped Jhonattan Vegas, his former International Presidents Cup teammate, by a shot.
Vegas, who shot a course-record 62 on Sunday the last time he played in Puerto Rico, finished strongly with 65. Local favorite Rafael Campos, Puerto Rico’s own, shot 70 and tied for third with Grayson Murray, three shots back. It was the third top 10 for Campos in Puerto Rico, and his highest finish. Considering that he didn’t have his best stuff, he was pleased to post a score below par.
“I really felt comfortable,” Campos said. “I really liked it. It was unfortunate – the key on this course is try to get off to a good start … I just didn’t do it. I haven’t been in this position this far into the tournament, but I felt extremely comfortable.”
While others were peering around as the afternoon faded toward evening, the 32-year-old Grace was looking upward, to the sky, thinking of his father, Peter, whom he lost last month in South Africa to Covid-19 complications. Peter Grace, who ran a restaurant and shop in Knysna, was Branden’s rock, the one who gave him his first set of golf clubs and got him on his way.
Grace felt he had company with him when he holed his tricky bunker shot for eagle-2 at the drivable 17th hole, and he followed up with a sterling up-and-down from a front bunker at 18 to hold off Vegas. After a couple pedestrian years of play (for him) and life-changing events off the course, Grace said the triumph gets back on the his path to playing the big events again and controlling his schedule. Victory puts Grace back in the picture for another Presidents Cup berth, too. He didn’t make the team the last time around, and it stung.
When Grace’s bunker shot trickled into the cup like a putt at 17 (“I knew it was going in 6 feet from the hole,” he said), Grace raised his sand wedge in the air with his left hand, and when he retrieved his ball, his head and eyes turned to the sky. “Just give me that strength for one more hole,” Grace said. “Just a couple more good swings …”
Grace and his wife had talked about Peter on the phone before the final round. Grace said the conversation brought tears to his eyes. The leaderboard in Puerto Rico was packed, and Grace started the day a shot out of the lead. The wind was blowing strongly, and it was going to be a day of patience. Six players either held or shared the lead on Sunday. Grace missed only one fairway and one green and was one of only two players in the top 10 (Brice Garnett the other) to steer clear of a single bogey.
Vegas, 36 and seeking his fourth PGA TOUR victory (his last win came in 2017 RBC Canadian Open), birdied seven of his first 12 holes, the perfect start. And then the birdie faucet ran dry. He would reach the 600-yard 18th in two and two-putt for a a final birdie to get back to 18 under, but only after dropping a shot at the par-4 14th. He three-putted from just off the green at the par-5 15th for a disappointing par and failed to birdie 16 and 17, each playing short and downwind.
“I shot 5 under on the front nine, which was exactly what I needed to do, and I birdied 10 and 12, which was absolutely perfect,” Vegas said. “Overall, it was a solid day. I wish I had played the final four holes a little bit better. That’s where it is.
“It’s been a couple long years for me, so it was good for me to get back in there with the feeling of winning again. This was a good experience.”
Grace, once ranked as highly as 35th in the world, entered this week’s opposite-field event ranked 147th. The victory gets him into the 2021 PLAYERS Championship, the PGA Championship, select invitational events such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard and the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, the 2022 Sentry Tournament of Champions, and makes him exempt through 2022-23. Best of all, after several very tough weeks of grieving, it gave him some peace. Winning was a terrific way to honor his father.
“It was an emotional day,” Grace said. “I thought about him a hell of a lot out there. The last tee shot, I was really struggling. I knew he was watching over me. I knew he was guiding me.”