The phone calls began for Branden Grace before the final putts of the RBC Heritage had dropped Sunday.
The South African leaped from a jammed leaderboard with a final-round 5-under-par 66 to finish at 9-under 275 and win by two shots over Russell Knox and Luke Donald. And one of the first numbers on his phone was countryman Ernie Els, who told Grace over coffee earlier in the week that Grace would win multiple times on Harbour Town Golf Links.
The victory was Grace’s first on the PGA Tour, though he had been through the fire before. He has won 10 times internationally, notched his first PGA Tour top-10 on Hilton Head Island last year and followed with top-five finishes in two majors.
Hoisting a trophy on U.S. soil was all that remained, and Grace did that Sunday on the 18th green overlooking Calibogue Sound, a tartan jacket draped on his shoulders.
“Now getting this victory, I can settle down a bit and forget about just keeping the (PGA Tour) card and that kind of stuff,” said Grace, who earned $1,062,000 with the win. “And now I can really just tick this one off the box and head into maybe the next couple of majors and trying to win it knowing that I have won out here before, now I can do it again.”
This will also be remembered as the year Donald again failed to close out a victory on Hilton Head, the year Bryson DeChambeau backed up his flash with a fourth-place finish in his professional debut and a year the weather didn’t grab headlines.
The finish also marked the fourth consecutive year the winner came from at least three shots behind to win on Sunday. Grace trailed Donald by three after the third round.
Charley Hoffman, only a shot off the lead entering the final round, continued his Sunday struggles with a 4-over 75. He dropped 12 spots into a tie for 14th.
Donald finished runner-up a third time and has earned more than $3 million in 11 Heritage starts — each of which have ended without a victory. He has finished second or third six times.
Sitting on a one-shot lead after 54 holes, Donald insisted he couldn’t be content to make pars or someone would come from the pack to beat him, but he shot even-par 71.
Donald has led after 54 holes on Hilton Head three times and failed to finish all three. The tie for second was Donald’s first top-10 since last year’s Travelers Championship for the former top-ranked player in the world.
“To be in contention, have a chance, that’s what you want to do,” Donald said. “You keep putting yourself in those positions. That’s the first one I’ve had this year, so I’m excited to hopefully build off this for next week.”
Harbour Town played tough all week, with new greens still firm and just enough breeze. Grace has known tougher.
He shared the lead with Jordan Spieth at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay on the 16th tee. A wayward drive rolled onto railroad tracks and out-of-bounds, leading to double bogey and fourth-place finish. The memory surfaced Sunday when his drive on 16 found the bunker in the bend of the fairway’s dogleg left.
But he saved par with a steely up-and-down.
Grace received a sponsor’s exemption here last year and finished tied for seventh, his first top-10 in the U.S. He made 11 cuts in 13 events with temporary tour status to earn his full PGA Tour card this year.
There were hints a breakthrough was near. Despite missing the cut at the Masters the previous week, Grace was hitting the ball as well as he ever has, caddie Zack Rasego reported to those close to Grace.
And he is comfortable on Harbour Town Golf Links, as Els said he would be.
The layout reminds him a little of his home Fancourt Golf and Country Club in South Africa, he said. He grew up with a talent for anything with a ball, including cricket, rugby and golf.
His dad sat him down at age 15 and made him choose one.
Grace, who has played on the European Tour, said there are still some European events he will continue to play and the rest of his attention will be here. He recently bought a home in Palm Beach, Fla., and will be married in November to fiancee Nieke Coetzee.
“And this really gets you in the mood to settle down a little bit and just step into gear whenever you can,” Grace said.
Your Guide to the RBC Heritage