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RBC Heritage Recap: Grace on the Rise After Win

Len Hochberg

Hochberg covers golf for RotoWire. A veteran sports journalist, he contributes to Sports on Earth and was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years.

RBC Heritage is one of the odd tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule. And not only because there is no “the” before RBC Heritage. And not only because the trophy is of a little Colonial-looking man as opposed to a grandiose bowl or a cup. And not only because they make the winner wear a plaid sport coat more suitable for a game-show host. Yes, we know the tournament folk refer to it as “tartan,” but this isn’t the Masters with their patrons/fans thing.

Harbour Town Golf Links is one of the shortest courses on tour, with some of the tiniest greens on tour. Besides being played the week after Augusta, that’s why many of the game’s big hitters skip the tourney – it neutralizes their advantage, even hurts them. That’s why we saw the likes of Luke Donald, Aaron Baddeley, Bryce Molder, David Toms and, to a lesser extent, Matt Kuchar, thrive where they otherwise normally don’t.

By now, if Branden Grace were reading this column, he’d probably be asking: “Hey, I actually won the tournament, how come they haven’t mentioned me yet?”

Okay, okay. Yes, Branden Grace came from behind to win by two strokes over bridesmaid-yet-again Donald and Russell Knox. The South African won for the first time on the PGA Tour, adding to his 10 previous worldwide wins, and is quietly (well, maybe not so quietly anymore) putting together a decent year.

Decent? One could argue that Grace is having a great year, having won the European Tour’s Qatar Masters in January, after two other top-five Euro finishes to begin 2016. But Grace is an interesting study from a fantasy viewpoint.

He didn’t make a real dent in five stateside tournaments before Hilton Head: Missed cut at the Honda, T23 at the WGC-Cadillac, T37 at the Valspar, T13 at the WGC-Match Play and, the week before Harbour Town, a flameout MC at the Masters. Hardly impressive.

Even the Qatar win came in a subpar field. Yes, it had some stars, such as Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, but it had an OWGR strength-of-field rating of 186. Conversely, RBC Heritage’s was 346 and the Masters’ was 798. (To learn about the OWGR SOF, click here.)

There was only one top-10 golfer at Harbour Town, Jason Day, and he was there because he’s part of “Team RBC” (they sponsor him). He didn’t contend on Sunday, nor did other highly ranked golfers, which could be attributed to a Masters hangover. Grace, having missed the Augusta cut, had no such malaise to overcome.

RBC Heritage’s OWGR rating was even significantly less than the Honda’s 446.

Now, to be sure, Grace is a world-class golfer. He’s up to 11th in the world, one placement shy of his career best. He came close at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, tying for fourth and could well be in the conversation again at Oakmont come June. He was T20 at the Open Championship last year and solo third at the PGA. He was 5-0-0 in 2015 Presidents Cup matches.

And winning two tournaments within three months is nothing to laugh at.

But Grace kissing a little man on a trophy while wearing a plaid sport coat very much is something to laugh at.

MONDAY TAKEAWAY

Luke Donald

Every time they interview Donald on the Golf Channel they refer to him as “former No. 1 Luke Donald.” Which is kind of sad, like he’s got nothing else to hang his hat on these days. And he really doesn’t. He didn’t qualify for the Masters, and he was hovering near No. 100 in the world entering the week. But as one of the shortest hitters on tour, Harbour Town is his wheelhouse, like Roland Garros for Rafael Nadal or Yankee Stadium for a left-handed hitter. Donald carried the lead into Sunday but couldn’t convert – again. He now has six top-threes at Hilton Head in the past eight years. It’s his best chance to win all year, his best chance to get back in the Masters. Short of a win, he’s needs to be in the top 50 at year’s end. He moved up to 68th after his T2. But those next 18 steps will be hard to climb. Last year after Harbour Town, Donald moved to 50th in the world. But by the end of the year, he was 77th.

Russell Knox

Knox now has a win and two seconds this season. And his win was at a WGC event (now that’s a strength of schedule!). Interestingly, he’s got only one other top-25 in 14 starts. So he’s clearly a hit-or-miss guy. Either way, he’s third in the point standings and, while there’s a long way to go, he could be looking at a berth in the Tour Championship come September.

Bryson DeChambeau

The most anticipated pro debut since … Spieth? Maybe bigger, because DeChambeau was coming off a great week at the Masters. He closed with a 3-under 68 to climb nine spots to T4 and, thus, qualify for this week’s Valero Texas Open without having to burn another sponsor’s exemption. Not that it appears DeChambeau will need all those exemptions before gaining membership. But, for the record, he has six more to win just under $750,000. He won $260,000 on Sunday. Which was a little more than my first paycheck. Would the winner’s check at San Antonio surprise anyone?

Kevin Na

There’s been a Kevin Na sighting! Which is an odd thing to say for a golfer with five top-10s and eight top-25s before May. Na started the season gangbusters, but hadn’t done much after a T3 at the CareerBuilder back in January. He clearly took advantage of a course suitable for his game (he’s 185th in driving distance, out of 203). And maybe he took advantage of all the weaker fields back in the fall. Hard to tell with Na, but he’s got only one top-10 in 23 career majors. Hmmm, maybe not so hard to tell.

Ricky Barnes

There’s been a Ricky Barnes sighting! With seven first rounds in the 60s this season, you could mockingly call Barnes “Mr. Thursday.” He has only nine other sub-70 rounds on the other three days combined. But Barnes saved two of those for this past Friday and Sunday, and they allowed him to secure his first top-10 of the season, at T9. He led the field in scrambling for the week, a surefire way to do well at Harbour Town. Do you feel lucky parlaying Barnes this week? He’s gone MC-WD-MC-T50-T36 the last five years at San Antonio.

Ernie Els

When we last saw Els, he was putting on the first green at Augusta. And putting on the first green at Augusta. And putting on … okay, you get the picture. But Els this past week showed the fortitude that’s been a hallmark of his great career. He tied for 14th with a closing 66. More impressively, he did it by finishing the week third in strokes gained-putting, at 2.096. Els clearly has a long way to go just to crack the top-125 (he’s 155th), but it was nice to see him put the Masters behind him.

Zach Johnson

Johnson is 17th in the world rankings but 62nd in the point standings, a clear disparity. That first number is certainly buffeted by his win at the Open Championship last summer. This season has been a struggle for Johnson, with the latest evidence coming Sunday. He entered tied for fifth, only to balloon to a 77 and tumble down the leaderboard to T33. He has three top-10s in his 11 starts but hasn’t really been in the mix for a title. Of course, that could change on a dime, beginning this week in San Antonio, where Johnson tied for sixth two years ago.

Jason Bohn

Another nice story. Less than two months after suffering a heart attack at the Honda Classic, Bohn played all four rounds at Harbour Town. Tying for 69th is of little consequence, of course, and simply playing the rest of the season will be gravy for Bohn, who turns 43 next Sunday. But making the cut in his first event may bode well if you want to consider Bohn for your lineup. He’s not in the field at San Antonio.

Paul Casey and Brandt Snedeker

These two were on many short lists to contend at Harbour Town so, naturally, they both missed the cut. In retrospect, we could chalk this up to an Augusta Hangover. We’ll find out for Snedeker right away, as he’ll play San Antonio.

Graeme McDowell

McDowell, on the other hand, should have had no such hangover, after missing the cut at the Masters. Plus, Harbour Town is a course on which he has thrived, winning in a playoff in 2013 and following that up with two T25s in 2014-15. But he didn’t reach the weekend this year, and if you needed any more evidence that his win at the OHL Classic back in November was an aberration, now you have it. Since March, McDowell has gone T28-MC-MC-T38-MC-MC.

Andrew Johnston

Anybody who wins a tournament and then says he can’t wait to “see my mum and brother and see them and just celebrate” is okay in our book. The Englishman won the Open de Espana for his maiden European Tour win, moving him from 233rd to 125th in the OWGR. Of course, the full quote was he can’t wait to “get hammered and see my mum and brother and see them and just celebrate,'' which may make him even more than okay in your book.

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