Can Branden Grace become South Africa's next major winner?

South African compatriots Branden Grace and Ernie Els chat before last year's Open Championship at Royal Troon. Ross Kinnaird/R&A/Getty Images

ERIN, Wis. -- They stood on the first tee at Erin Hills, an icon of South African golf along with three who aspire to be like him.

Ernie Els played a practice round Tuesday in advance of the U.S. Open with countrymen Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace, and after they all hit their tee shots for a late-afternoon practice round, they posed for photos.

Grace knows he's missing something the others have -- a major championship.

That is something the latest in a long line of South African golf stars is gaining on.

And he likes his chances more and more at the U.S. Open, where he has had consecutive top-five finishes.

"I like the U.S. Open," Grace said on the practice range at Erin Hills. "I feel I'm a good grinder. I'm good at grinding out scores and getting the most out of rounds. At golf courses like this, it's about patience and keeping the bogeys off the card. I would think I'm normally very good tee-to-green on these types of courses, and that's where I score."

Whether Grace can put together that kind of run this week is to be determined, but he was in the hunt to win at Chambers Bay two years ago before a double-bogey on the 16th hole dooming his chances. He still tied for fourth, two shots behind winner Jordan Spieth.

Last year at Oakmont, Grace finished tied for fifth, his final-round 71 leaving him four strokes back of champion Dustin Johnson.

Chambers Bay and Oakmont are two entirely different courses, which speaks to Grace's ability to adapt to varying conditions and layouts.

"I'm excited for this week. It reminds me of Whistling Straits," he said, referring to the Wisconsin course where Grace finished third in the 2015 PGA Championship, "and it has some similarities to Chambers Bay. I like the way it looks. It suits my eye. But you still have to get a little bit lucky with the draw and what you make out of it."

Grace, 29, has seven victories on the European Tour, his last coming at the 2016 Qatar Masters. He captured his lone PGA Tour title last year at the RBC Heritage.

Like many aspiring golfers, Grace has long looked up to Els, 47, who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his second U.S. Open title. Grace was just 9 years old in 1997 when Els held off Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman at Congressional, and his memories are feint.

But he and many others have benefited from Els' success, taking part in the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, which was established in 1999 to assist promising young golfers in South Africa. Oosthuizen also took part in the program, and Els sometimes shakes his head when considering playing with them today as contemporaries.

"They were juniors, and then they were amateurs, and now we are professionals, and now we're playing together," said Els, a four-time major winner. "It's very weird, hard to explain. I mean, Louis, Branden and Charl -- I've known them since they were so young, and now they are playing on the big stage. It's quite nice."

This could be Els' last time on this stage. His five-year exemption for winning the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham will expire, meaning he could be playing his final U.S. Open.

That is where Grace truly was enamored of Els, seeing him capture an unlikely Claret Jug.

"You get to see that he still has a love for the game," Grace said. "All these years and after all the ups and downs and more victories and the worldwide victories, and you see that he still has the fire, that look in his eye. He still wants it. And that's something we can all learn from and feed off."

Grace began to be noticed when he won four times on the European Tour in 2012. At the Volvo Golf Champions, he defeated legendary countrymen Els and Retief Goosen in a playoff.

Since then he has made consistent strides in the world rankings and is No. 29 entering the U.S. Open.

"To be honest, he was never that good," Schwartzel said of Grace's play as a junior. "He never really seemed to have stood out as an amateur. When he really started playing well is when he was a couple of years into his professional career. He found another gear. He's really one of those guys who went from an average player to a very good player. He's got a great mind for the game, and I think that's a big asset. Something clicked."

Grace, who is from Pretoria but now lives in George in southern South Africa, returned home following a tie for ninth at the BMW PGA Championship near London three weeks ago. He then traveled to Wisconsin on Sunday to begin preparations for the U.S. Open.

Part of that was a round with his South African mates, whom he often sees near their Florida homes. He'd love to be battling them for the U.S. Open trophy come Sunday.

"My form is getting better," he said. "The last three out of four events I've played I've been in contention. Not gone as I hoped, but it was nice to get back in the mix a little bit. I played well at Wentworth and didn't finish it off, but those were more management errors than golf errors. You need to make the right decision at the right time, and that can change a lot of times."