Eagle on 18 puts Branden in touch with Brandon at Africa Open

Branden Grace holed a nine-iron approach to the East London Golf Club’s 18th on Thursday to move to within a shot of the first round lead of the €1-million Africa Open.

His eagle two lifted him to six-under for the round, with leader Brandon Pieters’ early seven-under 66 holding up for the overall lead as play was called off in gathering darkness – a result of the one-and-a-half hour delay in the morning for dense coastal fog.

“I was just trying to hit it close,” Grace said.

It was an exclamation point to a round which stuttered after an opening birdie with a bogey on the fourth. “I was a bit nervous about what that might have done to my day,” he admitted.

“But the turning point came when I sank a good 15-footer for birdie on the 10th, and that was the first of three in a row for me,” he added.

He bogeyed the 14th – a hole players battled with all day – when he pulled his drive. “I was dead behind some trees and I had to just knock it out sideways,” he said.

And then came the moment of magic on the 18th after he had birdied the 16th.

He shared second with the ever-consistent Jaco van Zyl, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Gonnet, Swede Fredrik Ohlsson, Scot Elliot Saltman and England’s Miles Tunnicliff.

“I never really battle to make too many birdies,” said Van Zyl, who didn’t drop a shot in his 67. “I just make some silly mistakes sometimes, and going into the new year, I want to focus on eliminating those mistakes or keeping them to a minimum.”

For leader Pieters, it was a case of taking advantage of a run of great form after he rested for two weeks after the SA Open with a knee injury he picked up on his way back from the European Tour Q-School and exacerbated when he slipped down an embankment at Durban Country Club.

“I just did nothing for two weeks resting my knee after the SA Open,” he said, “and I felt really rusty on the range.”

His purple patch was underlined by a succession of five birdies in a row from the first to the seventh after he began his round on the ninth. “It was a case of making more putts in that stretch than I made all of last year,” he laughed.

Had he not made three bogeys in the first 10 holes, he might have had a runaway lead. “The bogeys were just from bad tee shots,” he said. “The rough’s up, and I just hit three bad tee shots which resulted in bogey. But the rest of the round, I putted really well and hit the ball really well.”

Defending champion Charl Schwartzel started superbly, turning in four-under 33, but then, after a birdie on 11 seemed to be setting him on his way to a superb start, made three bogeys on his way home at 13, 14 and 18. The damage was ameliorated somewhat by an eagle three on the 15th.

Two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen battled his way to a two-over 75, while Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, who was second behind Goosen in 2009, carded a fine four-under 69.

The second round will get underway on Friday as scheduled at 6.30am, and the first round will be completed starting at 7.15am.

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