Branden Grace still in PGA hunt despite rough finish

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson was lighting up the front nine, which was his back nine for the PGA Championship second round Friday at Kiawah Island, and Branden Grace was leading the golf tournament.

Even Grace knew at the time, that lead might be short-lived. And it was.

Mickelson finished with a flurry, capping off his 5-under 31 on that front nine with a birdie on No. 9, his final hole, to get to 5-under for the tournament. He was one shot behind Grace, who was 6-under and on the 14th hole, the heart of the diabolical back nine.

By the time Mickelson was halfway through the carwash of post-round media interviews, he had gone from trailing Grace by a shot to leading by two shots as the 32-year-old South African took double bogey on the par-3 17th and bogey on 18.

“Just trying to stay alive out there, to be honest,’’ Grace said afterward. “Even with that bad couple of holes, I still got the most out of my round. I hit some shots where I shouldn’t have and I made some up and downs. I’ll take it. I’m exactly where anybody would want to be going into the weekend.’’

Branden Grace
Branden Grace

Grace entered the weekend at 3-under, two shots behind co-leaders Louis Oosthuizen and Mickelson.

As he approached No. 14, Grace was bracing himself, knowing the difficulty that lay ahead and trying to squirrel away a birdie or two to offset the damage the final few holes might inflict.

“When you go on the back nine … all the way down to 13 you kind of tell yourself, ‘If I can make one or two [birdies] before that extra turn at 14 coming in, that homeward stretch’ — then you kind of just have to grind it out,’’ Grace said. “It’s tough. I knew I was playing well and just kind of waiting for that one bad thing to happen. I’ve worked hard mentally with my psychologist and just kind of preparing for the worst. If it happens, just getting on with it, and I’ve done that pretty well so far.’’

Grace has had some success in major championships before. He was third in the 2015 PGA Championship and tied for fourth in 2016. He set a major championship record for the lowest score ever shot with a 62 at the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale, where he finished tied for sixth. Overall, he has five finishes in the top 6 in majors.

But, had it not been for his victory at the Puerto Rico Open in February, Grace, currently ranked No. 92 in the world, wouldn’t even be in the field this week.

Grace revealed after that win in Puerto Rico that his father Peter, who introduced him to the game, had died in January of COVID-19.

“Obviously, a lot of emotion going into that week,’’ Grace said. “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. It was nice to get over that hurdle again [with the win]. I’ve contended in these big events before. There’s no reason why I can’t contend in them now.”

Grace said of his father’s death: “Obviously [there was] sadness, but there’s a lot of good to follow. I know my old man’s with me. He’s out there grinding it as well.’’

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