Grace a tougher customer in Joburg Open title defence

While much of what happened last year is a bit of a blur in his memory now, Branden Grace will take cherished details of the final hole of the Joburg Open with him as he begins his title defence on Thursday.

“I had a one-stroke lead going up the 18th fairway,” said Grace of the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington tournament that launched him on his dream 2012 of four European Tour titles and a ride up the world rankings to inside the top 50.

Waiting for him to stumble was Jamie Elson, who had blitzed his way around the East Course in a brilliant 63, while Grace had bogeyed the second, birdied the ninth, and was nursing it home in level par.

“Whatever happened, I wasn’t going to go for the green in two,” said Grace of the 504-metre (551-yard) closing hole. “I laid up with a nine-iron, but I hit it a bit far with all the adrenaline, so I had a tricky pitch with a lob wedge which I left about 30 feet short.

“Luckily, Richard Finch, my playing partner, put his ball just behind mine on the same line, so I was able to get a read and make the two-putt for the win,” he recalled.

This year, the €1.3-million event co-sanctioned by the European Tour sees Grace inside the top 30 and in a completely different space – to the extent that he is relishing his first tournament pairing with two-time Joburg Open champion Charl Schwartzel.

It should be an intimidating prospect, given that Schwartzel rounded off 2012 with two victories by double-digit stroke margins, but it’s not: “Charl and I are good friends but as far as I can remember we’ve never been drawn together in a competitive round so this is going to be fun,” he said.

Schwartzel might be a bit rusty, however, coming as he is off a six-week break, but there is plenty of other opposition that will occupy Grace’s mind, one of whom is his good friend George Coetzee.

Grace is only too aware of the threat Coetzee poses. “One of the things I need to work on is consistency, to be more like George. I won four times, yes, but I didn’t have any other top 10s. Georgie didn’t win, but with his consistency he had a bunch of top 10s. So that’s one area where I need to improve,” he said.

There are alsothe European Tour players who played well in last week’s tournament. One of them is Felipe Aguilar of Chile, who had a share of third in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and a share of ninth the week before in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

And Richard Sterne, beaten by Stephen Gallacher in Dubai, is showing signs of returning to the kind of form which saw him win the Joburg Open in 2008.

But they all will be up against a Grace who is a different kettle of fish from last year. “I’m playing well, just like last year, and I’m more comfortable out on tour. Last year, even though I won four times, I wasn’t sure what to expect in places I’d never been to before. Now I’ll feel more at home,” he said.

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