A scant six weeks ago in Dubai, Rory McIlroy ultimately took home the hardware. He collected most of the money, the high fives and rousing accolades, too. Deservedly so.
By the time the European Tour's season finale had been completed, with McIlroy finishing the season with five consecutive birdies to cement top-player honours, the tournament title and the Race to Dubai cash bonus, the question being posed at the start of the week was moot.
Before McIlroy had settled the issue so emphatically, an interesting philosophical discussion broke out in cyberspace about who embodied the best European Tour player for 2012. It might sound like semantics now, but it wasn't: was it McIlroy, who had amassed four global victories, including a major, to that point? Then there was the largely overlooked Branden Grace, who had amassed five victories, including four in European Tour events.
The essence of the debate was, should the top-player award be bestowed on the best member of the European circuit, even though he had played mainly in the United States, or the man who played the best on the European Tour proper? Because if the honour was defined by the latter, Grace had a spiked foot in the door and one hand on the award.
This week, in his native South Africa, Grace defends a title for the first time in his career, at the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban, although he had better get used to being the marked man. His performance was an almost incomprehensible breakthrough for a player who spent 2011 finishing 24th on the developmental Challenge Tour money list.
"I've never defended a title before so this is another first for me," Grace told the tour website this week.
He has managed the shackles of semi-celebrity just fine, another heady achievement. Before he began reeling off victories, amassing two in as many weeks last January, he had just slogged through fall qualifying school, earning his card for 2012. That is a tortuous ritual he will not soon be forced to undertake again.
Grace was ranked No 268 in the world 13 months ago and has rocketed to 34th, earning spots in the mega-money World Golf Championships events and a first invitation to the Masters. At 24, he has played in four majors, which is not to suggest he has not already whipped players who have piled up grand-slam championships of their own.
A year ago at this event, he beat countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen in a play-off to win the Volvo Golf Champions title. Those two have accounted for six majors. Others on the Volvo leaderboard included Padraig Harrington, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, major winners all.
"One thing led to another, and I think after I got the confidence and all the experience from the first win, everything else just jumped into place and everything just happened," he said. "So it's just really been a dream."
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