Grace leads five Sunshine Tour players into Europe

It hasn’t been a good year for Branden Grace – until now, as the 23-year-old Sunshine Tour youngster led four other South Africans to their European Tour cards in the European Tour’s Final Qualifying Stage at PGA Catalunya Resort in Spain.

Grace carded a final-round 73 in a gruelling six-round event to finish 11th at 14-under-par, seven strokes off the pace set by winner David Dixon.

The other South Africans to earn the right to play on one of the biggest stages in world golf – players from the European Tour are dominating the game right now – were Warren Abery, Darren Fichardt, Alex Haindl and Tjaart van der Walt.

Jean Hugo saw his attempt to break back into Europe after a long sojourn on his home circuit fall agonisingly short as his six-under-par total was one stroke shy of earning a card – tough to swallow after his opening 65.

Justin Walters also missed out, with his closing 73 and 74 seeing him slip out of contention.

Grace, who won his maiden professional title in 2010 when he took the Coca-Cola Championship at Fancourt in his home town of George, had a rough time of it on the 2011 Challenge Tour, despite four top-10 finishes on it, including a best of third behind Michiel Bothma in the Barclays Kenya Open.

But he also missed eight cuts, and he managed only a 30th spot in the tour’s season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.

And when he returned to South Africa, a missed cut in the Alfred Dunhill Championship seemed an inauspicious was to come home.

But he gathered himself and a share of ninth in the South African Open Championship gave him the confidence to go to Spain and hold on through the searching test of a qualifying school environment to get himself onto the main circuit.

Abery turned a second-successive year of success on the Sunshine Tour into the kind of play which earned him his card: He had seven top-10s in 2011, including victory in the Nedbank Affinity Cup in a great second half of the year.

Fichardt was even more successful than Abery on the 2011 Sunshine Tour, with 12 top 10, including victories in the Vodacom Origins of Golf event at the Wild Coast and in the Suncoast Classic.

Haindl and Van der Walt both campaigned fairly extensively abroad in 2011 – Haindl on the Challenge Tour and Van der Walt in Asia – but Haindl did find time to post six top-10s in South Africa, while Van der Walt had four.

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