UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The last round that Branden Grace played at the U.S. Open before arriving at Chambers Bay this week was two years ago at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia.
He shot 83 and missed the cut.
No wonder the affable South African had such a hard time wiping the smile from his face on Saturday. Grace survived the brutal conditions of the links-style course south of Seattle for an even-par 70 that left him at 4 under and tied for the lead entering the final round.
"I'm stoked. I can't wait. Tomorrow is going to be a good one," Grace said. "This is what we play golf for. It's a dream to lead a tournament like this, or tying the lead."
Grace is certainly the least-known among the leaders.
Masters champ Jordan Spieth is trying to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2002 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. Dustin Johnson is playing in the final group of a major on Sunday for the fourth time. Jason Day has twice been runner up at the U.S. Open.
Four others are at 1 under, including countryman Louis Oosthuizen.
But Grace is plenty accomplished in his own right. The European Tour regular has won six times overseas, including the Alfred Dunhill Championship and Qatar Masters earlier this year.
He also tied for 18th at the Masters a couple years ago.
"Having a chance to win my first major," Grace said simply, "is something special."
Unlike the rollercoaster rounds played by some of the other leaders, Grace has been steady. He had three birdies and three bogeys Saturday, and through 54 holes has hit 44 greens in regulation — only Jason Dufner and Beau Hossler have hit more.
If he can just get a few putts to go, Grace could be in business. He had a trio of three-putts over a five-hole stretch on Saturday that kept him from going low.
"It happens quickly on this golf course. If you have damage, just keep it small and don't let the big numbers creep in," he said. "If you let it slip and you get the wrong bounce you're looking at making bogeys. You just have to try to keep those things off the scorecard and make those pars. I think a good, level round tomorrow might just do it."
It would allow Grace to join some select company, too.
The last player from South Africa to win the U.S. Open was Retief Goosen, who won his second at Shinnecock in 2004. Ernie Els has won two championships and Gary Player won one.
"We played a couple of practice rounds together earlier in the week and I said from the start, of the South Africans, he has the best chance, because he hits the ball really low with his driver," Els said. "He gets good length, he's a really good iron player and he's been working on his putting. He's got the all-around game for this place."