KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — With everything Branden Grace has been through on and off the golf course in the past nine months, a tough finish to fall out of the lead at the PGA Championship wasn’t that big a deal.
Grace, a 33-year-old South African with a low ball flight that works well in windy conditions, was the only player ahead of Phil Mickelson early Friday afternoon at Kiawah Island when his tee shot on the wicked par-3 17th hole missed short and right and found the water, leading to double bogey.
Grace followed with a bogey on the tough finishing hole to shoot a 1-under 71 and post 3-under 141 through two rounds, two strokes behind Mickelson.
“You kind of knew that final stretch was going to play tough. I want to say, even with that bad couple of holes, I still got the most out of my round,” Grace said. “I hit some shots where I shouldn’t have and I made some up-and-downs. I’ll take it.”
It was a victory of sorts for Grace to have a tee time in the PGA Championship. Last August, Grace was one shot out of the lead through 36 holes at the Barracuda Championship in Truckee, California, when he tested positive for COVID-19. He had to pull out of that tournament and the PGA the following week at Harding Park in San Francisco.
He was able to play in the subsequent PGA Tour event, the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, after a cross-country ride in an RV.
“I think I’ve seen more of America than most Americans, let me put it that way, and it took me four days to get there,” Grace said.
That wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Grace during the pandemic. His father died of COVID-19 in January. Two months later, Grace closed eagle-birdie to win the Puerto Rico Open by one shot and earn a spot in the PGA Championship.
“Obviously, what happened, the sadness, there’s a lot of good to follow. I know my old man’s with me. He’s out there grinding it as well,” Grace said. “So I’m just playing golf. I’m enjoying it and nice to have the family out there just to stay calm on the other side of it.”
Grace holds the single-round major championship scoring record, a 62 in the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale. He has four top-five finishes in majors, including third in another PGA at a Pete Dye-designed golf course, Whistling Straits in 2015.
But lately he’s missed a few majors, failing to earn invitations to the Masters last November or this April.
“I believe that I should be out here. I believe that I should be a top 30 player in the world, and I believe I should win,” Grace said. “I’ve contended in these big events before. There’s no reason why I can’t contend in them now, especially around a golf course like this.”
Y.E. YANG, the 2009 PGA Championship winner, was disqualified from this year’s event for signing an incorrect scorecard after the second round. A tournament statement said Yang signed for a par on the 10th hole when he actually made a bogey 5. Yang stood at 14-over through 36 holes and would not have made the cut.
Yang, who is from South Korea, famously rallied on the final day of this tournament 12 years ago to overtake Tiger Woods for his only major title.
YOUNG ENGLISHMAN Sam Horsfield was a surprise at the PGA Championship with an opening 69, finishing two shots off the lead in his first-ever round at the major. But on Friday, the wind and pressure got to the 24-year-old Horsfield, who shot an 8-over 80.
Horsfield’s second round included eight bogeys and a double-bogey 6 on the sixth hole. He needed an 18-foot putt to stay in the 70s, but he sent it past he cup to settle for a final bogey. It was a quick, decisive fall for a player who won twice on the European Tour in 2020. Then again, that’s what Pete Dye’s challenging layout can do to almost any competitor.
COREY CONNORS certainly has a wild first nine. The Canadian who led by two shots after Thursday’s opening round at the Ocean Course, started his first seven holes without a par. That run included five bogeys against two birdies to drop from the top spot.
Conners closed his opening nine with pars on the challenging 17th and 18th holes, then had two bogeys and two birdies on the front nine for a 3-over 75 that left him at 2 under overall.