Three-time European Tour champion Branden Grace hopes a return to home soil will see him claim an elusive first Vodacom Origins of Golf victory in the series opener at Simola Country Club in Knysna this week.
Following his breakthrough victory at the Joburg Open in January, the 23-year-old Knysna golfer lifted the Volvo Golf Champions title a week later and the Volvo China Open in April. Next week, Grace will challenge for the Volvo World Match Play title in Spain, where he hopes to follow in the footsteps of South African legends Gary Player and Ernie Els.
But for the next three days, the Vodacom Origins tournament at Simola has his undivided attention.
ÂIÂm thrilled to be home and that it worked out that I could tee it up in the Vodacom Origins at Simola for a second year running,Â said Grace.
ÂI was disappointed to tie for eighth here last year because I know this course like the back of my hand. This year IÂm going into battle with a little more confidence. Plus I saw a lot of Volvo courtesy cars driving around the Simola clubhouse this morning. IÂm taking it as a good omen for this week.Â
Ranked a lowly 271 at the end of 2011, Grace has launched an incredible 205 spots to 66th in the golf world rankings.
When he beat an illustrious line-up of European Tour winners at The Links in George, he became the first player since Fred Couples in 1995 to follow his first win with another consecutively. Only the late Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle were younger than Grace when he captured the Volvo China Open for his third title in April.
And the Knysna professional became only the third South African, after Els and Retief Goosen, to win three times in one season on the European Tour. He was also just the second player in the history of the European Tour to win three times in a single season after qualifying school.
But Grace is happy to brush all the stats aside.
ÂMy focus this week is to put a Vodacom Origins title behind my name,Â he said. ÂIt doesnÂt matter how big or small a tournament is, a win is a win and the Vodacom Origins is the biggest series on the Sunshine Tour and the longest running.
ÂMany of South AfricaÂs top golfers own a Vodacom Origins title. I feel like I should be on that list. Look at Thomas (Aiken) and Brandon (Pieters) who won three times in a season. Hennie Otto, Jean Hugo and George Coetzee all won twice in a season. Even Louis (Oosthuizen) won an Origins event.
ÂHopefully IÂve brought enough form from China to really challenge this week.Â
This eighth Vodacom Origins series has been dubbed ÂThe Goose ChaseÂ, with the ultimate prize for the winning amateurs from each event the opportunity to play golf with two-time US Open champion Goosen in the Final at The Links at the end of the year. And Goosen is yet another reason why Grace wants his name on the trophy.
ÂI think itÂs cool the way Vodacom has honoured some of our countryÂs greatest golfers in past years,Â Grace said. ÂThis year it is Goose, who has been one of my idols since I was just a young golfer. You know, I was more nervous to play with Goose in the third round of the Joburg Open than I was facing him and Ernie (Els) in the play-off a week later. I think that to win in a year when he is being honoured, would be a special for me. Yeah, IÂm ready to chase a goose.Â
Like Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, Grace is committed to supporting the Sunshine Tour and said he also enjoyed the chance to catch up with his peers.
ÂIÂll always come back to support the Tour, because this is where it all started for me,Â he said.
ÂI played a practice round with Smiley (Christiaan Basson). WeÂve known each other for years and it was great to see him win in Swaziland last week. I was touched when he told me that IÂve inspired him. If I can do that for a few more guys, that would be awesome.Â
Basson, who claimed the Investec Royal Swazi Sun Open on Saturday, was thrilled to spend nine holes with Grace ahead of the R600 000 Vodacom Origins tournament.
ÂBranden and I came through the ranks as juniors and amateurs,Â he said. ÂTo have someone from our generation showing us what can be achieved, is incredible. He has launched to 66th in the world, he has broken records in Europe and set new ones. ItÂs great having him around this week.
ÂI think it says a lot about him as a golfer and how he still feels about supporting the Sunshine Tour. His presence here will certainly force us to lift our games this week, so he will have to bring his A-game to beat us to the finish.Â
By Lali Stander