South AfricaÂs Branden Grace, one of the brightest young talents in golf, led from start to finish to celebrate his most impressive victory of the year, winning the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship by two shots at St Andrews from DenmarkÂs Thorbjorn Olesen.
From the moment he signed his card after a spectacular first round 60 at Kingsbarns on Thursday, Grace, one of the best front-runners in golf, was a hot favourite to win. And, although he had one or two wobbly moments in his final round on the Old Course, he thoroughly deserved his victory.
Grace, who shot a final round 70 for a 22-under-par total of 266, now joins some of the greatest names in golf Â Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Sir Nick Faldo, Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods among them Â who have won four European Tour events in the same season.
At 24 years and 140 days, he becomes the youngest winner in Alfred Dunhil l Links Championship history and the youngest South African four-time winner in a season, beating the great Els, who was 32 when he achieved that feat. His victory and the $800,000 first prize takes him to third in the Race to Dubai, the European TourÂs order of merit.
The tournament, conceived as a celebration of links golf, is played over three of the worldÂs best known and respected links courses – The Old Course at St Andrews, the Championship Course at Carnoustie and the highly regarded Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Grace said: ÂI think whether you win as a junior or amateur or pro, just winning at St Andrews, the Home of Golf is special. This morning I was just going on the Internet and I looked at a couple of pictures of Louis Oosthuizen winning The Open here and what he looked like holding the trophy and I thought that would just make the day. I actually stayed with Louis this week. He invited me to stay with him and his family, so that’s been pretty awesome.
ÂI felt really calm the whole day and actually played really well. There were a couple of slip ups here and there, but otherwise everything went to plan. I never dreamed I could win four European Tour titles in one year, and one of them the Dunhill – there are some great names on the trophy. The last couple of years, I felt I’ve been playing good golf, but never really got where I wanted to. But obviously now this has been a dream year so far.Â
This year Grace has already won the Johannesburg Open, the Volvo Golf Championship and the Volvo China Open and in each of them he was leading or sharing the lead going into the final round, so his victory at St Andrews continues his 100 percent record of front-running. Last week, he also won the Vodacom Origins of Golf pro-am event on the Sunshine Tour.
It should have been a coronation for Grace, but there were moments in the day when it looked as if the crown might be slipping as the South African struggled to find the blistering form with his putter that had characterized his golf over the first three days and 22-year-old Dane Olesen began to pile on the pressure.
With Olesen reaching the turn in 33, three shots better than Grace, the lead was down to one. And it was soon to get worse. At the par three 11th, Grace dropped another shot and his lead had gone completely.
For a moment it looked as if we were witnessing a repeat of 2005 when Colin Montgomerie overhauled a five-shot lead held by Kenneth Ferrie to win his first Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. But on this occasion, Grace recovered his composure and spectacularly birdied the 12th, 13th and 14th to put himself in control once again.
At the 465 yards, 13th hole, Grace rolled in his ten feet birdie putt and Olesen, much nearer, should have followed him in, but missed.
The par five 14th was even more decisive. Grace mishit his eagle attempt and left it ten feet short. Olesen rolled his to four feet. With the advantage definitely OlesenÂs, Grace rammed in his putt for a birdie and Olesen missed and had to settle for a par five. What could have been a one shot swing to Olesen became a one shot swing to Grace.
That effectively clinched it for Grace and even a bogey five at the 17th Road Hole left him breathing space to clinch a memorable victory. Olesen finished with 68 for a 20-under-par total, with SwedenÂs Alexander Noren two shots further back after a final round 69.
Olesen said: ÂBranden played great. He missed a few putts on the front nine but he holed some really good ones on the back nine. He played great and had three amazing rounds the first three days. I didn’t hit the ball really good, so I was a little bit surprised all of a sudden to be tied with him. Frankly I didn’t hit it good enough to win this week and that’s it.Â
ScotlandÂs Stephen Gallacher, champion in 2004, looked to be mounting a challenge at one stage after five birdies in six holes around the turn, but his bid for victory came to an abrupt end when he played the ball of his amateur amateur by mistake on the 16th hole which resulted in a quadruple bogey eight.