The holiday season may be approaching its conclusion, but tempering the dread of going back to work for golf fans is the return of the Sunshine Tour’s summer swing, and what better way to kick things off than the South African Open Championship at Glendower Golf Club in Ekurhuleni on Thursday.
The 104th edition of golf’s second oldest national championship has attracted no fewer than nine previous champions, and one man looking to add the prestigious trophy to his already-impressive cabinet is Branden Grace.
The Pretoria-born star entered the holiday period in the best possible way after blowing the field at the Alfred Dunhill Championship away by seven shots in December, recording the event’s first ever wire-to-wire victory in the process.
“I was happy that I could keep the lead throughout the whole tournament,” the five-time European Tour winner commented after his triumph at Leopard Creek. “For what’s to come, it’s a good feeling to know that I can handle myself when I’m in that position.”
The win also completed the ‘Dunhill double’ for Grace, who memorably clinched the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in a tense final afternoon at St Andrews in 2012. It was the cherry on top of a barnstorming year that also saw him seal the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit and climb to a career high of 37th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Yet after his breakthrough season, a period of relative stagnation ensued, and although he finished a respectable 18th and 31st in the Race to Dubai for 2013 and 2014 respectively, a return to the winner’s circle eluded him for more than two years. Until the blitzkrieg at Leopard Creek that is.
“It’s incredible how quickly two years go past,” Grace reflected. “You wonder when the next one will come. It’s been a hard year, but over the past few months the work has paid off.”
“It’s nice to be able to build something up to a win. I’ve been knocking on the door for the last couple of weeks, so it’s nice to finish it off,” he added.
Finish it off he did, and in some style. But the challenge for Grace next week will be to shake off the rust and attempt to pick up from where he left off if he is to realise his dream of winning his national Open.
One man who will be right by his side providing the best possible guidance is experienced caddie Zack Rasego, who, after a period of separation from Grace in 2014, returned to his role on the bag in October. Since the reunion, Grace has yet to finish outside the top 25, and the win at Leopard Creek was the 26-year old’s sixth as a professional under Rasego’s watchful eye.
“With Zack on the bag it kept me really calm and I kept hitting good shots,” Grace noted. “It was a deliberate move to get him back. Things happen for a reason. We stopped working together and things went a little bit south. But you have to go through those things in life. I made a mistake and things are back to normal.”
He added: “It’s been a short path back with Zack, only two months. But it’s been a great short while and (the win) is a good finish to the year.”