At the driving range on Wednesday at Firestone CC, Branden Grace looked almost giddy as he wrapped up his last practice session before teeing it up for the first time the following afternoon with his childhood hero Tiger Woods.
I asked his player-manager how much Grace was looking forward to the pairing.
He replied, “I think he’s feeling a little bit of everything right now…”
Grace, a 24-year-old from South Africa, has won three times on the European Tour in 2012 — the Joburg Open, the Volvo Golf Champions and Volvo China Open. He and Tiger are the only triple winners this year on any of the major tours.
After both posting two-over in the first two rounds, Grace and Tiger were grouped together for the third day in a row on Saturday.
Grace started hot, firing off six birdies in the first 10 holes, which caught Tiger’s attention.
“I thought I was playing pretty well through I’ll say, 11 holes, but I was getting killed by my playing partner,” said Woods after carding a two-under 68 in the third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I thought I was playing well, but he was playing better.”
Grace cooled off and bogeyed two holes on the back nine to settle for a four-under 66. Afterward, he told reporters that playing with Tiger “a dream come true,” according to GolfChannel.com’s Randall Mell.
“I hadn’t played with him before, but now, to have played with him three days in a row, has been unreal,” Grace said. “I’ve learned a hell of a lot from playing with him. The way he plays shots, the way he handles himself and things like that, has been great. He’s there because he is the best in the world. I’ve seen it now, and I think people really criticize him, that is wrong. He’s one hell of a guy, and he’s pretty much the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”
The nicest? I’m sure he was nice, but really, the nicest ever?
I know other starry-eyed rising stars have had pleasant experiences playing with the 14-time major champ for the first time, but Grace’s praise is the most effusive I’ve heard. Good for both of them and it must have been especially cool for Grace to beat Woods on Saturday.
“It’s nice to know that he’s everything that I hoped he would be,” added Grace. “He’s been my idol and my role model since I started playing golf.”
(Getty Images/Sam Greenwood)