Johannesburg – With the hopes of a nation resting squarely on his shoulders, top-ranked South African Branden Grace is ready to break the local drought in the SA Open starting at Glendower Golf Club, in Johannesburg, on Thursday.
The last South African to triumph in the national open was Hennie Otto in 2011. Since then Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Dane Morten Orum Madsen and Englishman Andy Sullivan have denied any local players the chance to win the second oldest championship in golf.
But Grace as the highest-ranked South African in the field at number 14 in the world was confident about his chances.
“As a South African this is the one tournament you want to win,” said Grace on Wednesday.
“There’s been some big names on the trophy and there’s a lot of history behind this event. There’s been a couple of mates who have their names up on the trophy, and hopefully I can have my name up there soon.”
Grace burst onto the European Tour scene in 2012, winning his first co-sanctioned event at the Joburg Open and followed up the very next week with a playoff win over childhood heroes Ernie Els and Retief Goosen at the Volvo Golf Champions at the Links at Fancourt in George.
Grace went on to win two more times before the year was out on the European Tour to take his win tally to four at the age of 24. “That feels long gone. Those were good steps for that time. Obviously your first win is the hardest. But then as you progress, I feel like every part of my game has improved. Gaining this last bit experience in the Majors in 2015, now I know I can compete with these guys. You learn when to push, and how much to push. Sometimes you over-push yourself and that’s what I did at the British Open.” But it was the performances of Grace, now 27, in the Majors in 2015 which earmarked the player as a future Major-winner.
Grace was tied for the lead in the final round of the US Open with three holes to play before an out of bounds tee shot on the 16th meant he was forced to settle for a share of fourth. At the PGA championship Grace was right in contention again as he finished third. Grace is now a six-time winner on the European Tour, and said he felt his overall game had never been in better shape.
“I feel I’m in a lot better frame of mind, on and off the course. The game feels like it’s in much better shape than in 2012. The bigger picture is to be in contention in the Majors again. I was very close, I was a lot closer than people think. I know if I play that type and style of golf, I can win a Major.”
SA Open champion in 2003 and 2004 Trevor Immelman is also in the field and would be hoping to rekindle memories of his triumphs.
“To get my first European Tour victory by winning the SA Open in Cape Town was very special. All the guys I grew up watching and trying to emulate like Ernie and Goose [Goosen] and Gary Player all won the SA Open. So to win it myself was a dream come true.”
With the victories back to back, Immelman became the first golfer since Gary Player to successfully defend a South African Open championship title. The 36-year-old won the Masters in 2008, but in the last few years has seen his world ranking free-fall to outside the top 1000.
“I haven’t played as well as I would like for a while, but I’m always hopeful,” said the former world-number 12.
“I’ve never stopped working hard. I like to believe if I find a way to give myself a chance of winning, I’ve never been afraid of that position.”
With Els serving the role as player-ambassador for the tournament, he may not be expected to contend. But the rest of the South African hopes will be carried by George Coetzee and Jaco van Zyl as the only other South Africans in the field ranked inside the top 100 in the world.
– African News Agency (ANA)