AKRON, Ohio – Branden Grace is playing the opening two rounds of the Bridgestone Invitational with Tiger Woods, the biggest draw in golf and a seven-time winner at Firestone. It was a clever pairing because they are the only players with three wins this year.
Grace is a powerful South African who won the Joburg Open, the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt and the China Open.
He also is the third African player, who is not well known in America, who be paired with Woods at the start of a World Golf Championship. By the look of things, Grace is in better position than the other two.
It was at Firestone in 2005 when officials decided to put Woods with Marc Cayeux of Zimbabwe, who was making his first trip to America.
Just his luck, Cayeux burned the inside of his left hand on a barbecue the week before, leaving a quarter-sized hole in his hand. Unwilling to miss such a big event, he wore a thick glove and fought through the pain to post a 71. The toughest part of Cayeux was getting to the seventh green, going to mark his ball and seeing the words, "PRACTICE" on the side of his Titleist. A range ball somehow got into his bag.
He sheepishly called over Woods and Niclas Fasth, and then a rules official, but was not penalized because he was using the same ball.
Three years later at Doral, officials looking for a rising international star decided to put Woods with a young South African named Louis Oosthuizen. Upon arriving in America, he watched on TV as Woods buried a 25-foot putt to win Bay Hill, and then get a message from South African Airways that his clubs had gone missing. They didn't arrive until the night before the opening round.
About the only thing Grace might have to battle is idol worship.
"He's my role model since I started playing golf," Grace said. "Tomorrow is a little bit of a dream come true."
Grace has come a long way in a short time. He got his European Tour card through Q-school, then came out roaring. He won in back-to-back weeks in South Africa, winning in a playoff at Fancourt that included Ernie Els.
"I promise you at the end of last year, I would have dreamt of playing with Tiger first two rounds at Bridgestone," Grace said. "But it shows you if you stick your head down and keep grinding and keep playing, you never know what can happen."
TOMS RETURNS: David Toms didn't plan a six-week break in the middle of the year. He didn't plan to miss the British Open.
After his tie for fourth in the U.S. Open, Toms flew home to Louisiana from San Francisco with plans of taking two weeks off and returning at The Greenbrier. If he felt strong enough, he was going to play the John Deere Classic before going over to England for the British Open.
"I got home Sunday night, and Monday morning I went to tie my shoes and my back went out," Toms said. "I was in bed for 2 1/2 days and didn't move. I couldn't do anything for two weeks."
He had a cortisone injection and let it heal, but he was not prepared to play Greenbrier or John Deere, and he didn't fancy his chances at the Open. And with hopes of playing seven straight weeks through the FedEx Cup playoffs, he felt rest was in order.
"I'm sure my back was bothering me during the U.S. Open, and then that long flight coming home," he said. "I didn't hit a shot for two weeks. After that, it was chipping and putting. I wasn't ready to play golf. I wasn't going to be competition. And then you've got the long flight over, links golf ... I felt zero percent of zero is zero, right? I wasn't confident I was going to play well."
LONG PUTTERS: The USGA and R&A are looking into long putters and belly putters, focusing mainly on anchoring the putter to the body and whether any decision should fall under the rules of golf or an equipment ruling. If it's under the rules, a change would not take place until 2016.
Whatever the case, Keegan Bradley might say he had a hand in any decision.
Bradley became the first player with a belly putter to win a major last year at the PGA Championship. Then, Webb Simpson used a belly putter in winning the U.S. Open, and Ernie Els used a belly putter to win the British Open, by one shot over Adam Scott, who uses a long putter.
"There's been a lot of belly putters winning," Bradley said. 'I don't think that's a bad thing. I just think it all happened at once. My generation of golfers have been using these putters for a long time. In the past, I think it was a lot of the older guys who felt they couldn't use anything else. I think this generation is different and a little more willing to try things. You're just starting to see it."
Bradley had a good stroke with the short putter, but decided to try the belly. So if there's a change, "I'm not scared at all to have to putt with a short putter," he said.
That might be different for someone like Carl Pettersson, who has used a long putter dating to his amateur days, or Tim Clark, who also has used a long putter in playing in the Presidents Cup and winning The Players Championship.
And then there is Ernie Els, who decried the longer putters a few years ago until he switched with the famous line, "As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them." Now, the Big Easy is trying to work his way back to a short putter.
"By the end of the year or so," he said. "But don't cast that in stone. I think I've still got four years maybe with the long putter, so I've still got a bit of time. But eventually, I want to get to the short putter because I feel back in the day, that was my best method of putting."