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 birdie 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 this year's PGA.
“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.”
He was joined at 3 under by another South African, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who managed to play the closing four holes in even par.
Grace wasn't the only one to fall back after threatening to post the best round of the day. Ian Poulter was 6 under through 12 holes but bogeyed four of the final six to shoot 70. He, too, was happy with the way he played on the wind-swept Ocean Course.
“I got onto 13 and there was a scoreboard in a distance, and it was ironic, it says, ‘Ian Poulter, 6 under through 12 and chasing down a course record,’ and I just started laughing to myself, like, who in the world would write that and put that on a board with the last five holes to play?” Poulter said. “If anyone does shoot 6-under par, then major respect. It's incredible."
More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports