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.
ÂI had a one-stroke lead going up the 18th fairway,Â 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.
ÂWhatever happened, I wasnÂt going to go for the green in two,Â said Grace of the 504-metre (551-yard) closing hole. ÂI 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.
ÂLuckily, 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,Â he recalled.
This year, the Â1.3-million event co-sanctioned by the European Tour sees Grace inside the top 30 and in a completely different space Â 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 itÂs not: ÂCharl and I are good friends but as far as I can remember weÂve never been drawn together in a competitive round so this is going to be fun,Â 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 GraceÂs mind, one of whom is his good friend George Coetzee.
Grace is only too aware of the threat Coetzee poses. ÂOne 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 didnÂt win, but with his consistency he had a bunch of top 10s. So thatÂs one area where I need to improve,Â he said.
There are alsothe European Tour players who played well in last weekÂs 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. ÂIÂm playing well, just like last year, and IÂm more comfortable out on tour. Last year, even though I won four times, I wasnÂt sure what to expect in places IÂd never been to before. Now IÂll feel more at home,Â he said.