x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

A return to the European Tour the Grace way

Having lost his card, the South African has had a massive impact and come back in style.

Branden Grace of South Africa practises at Jumeirah Golf Estates yesterday.
Branden Grace of South Africa practises at Jumeirah Golf Estates yesterday.

If Branden Grace is not a name that resonates as strongly as a Rory McIlroy or a Lee Westwood, then perhaps it is simply a matter of time until it does.

The South African was introduced at yesterday's press conference at Jumeirah Golf Estates as the European Tour's "most prolific champion of 2012", yet the Spartan gathering that gained a glimpse of the player suggested he is not quite yet its most desirable.

Grace, however, has marched prominently on the golfing stage ever since he secured his tour card last November and followed it with four victories.

Back-to-back successes at the season's onset were achieved on familiar fairways in the Rainbow Nation, although the accusation this was a tidy player only when on home soil was expunged in China in April and then at last month's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

Having broken the scoring record at one of the tour's pre-eminent events - he shot a first-round 60 at Kingsbarns - Grace bounded into third in the Race to Dubai and gatecrashed our consciousness.

He even drew rave remarks from a celebrated compatriot. "He could well win [a British Open], he's that good," said Ernie Els, who should know, seeing as the Claret Jug currently rests with him.

Yesterday in his new home, though - Grace has recently taken residence in Dubai - the quiet golfer with the growing CV chose to temper a wonderful season.

"After I got the confidence and the experience after the first win, everything else just jumped into place," he said. "Everything just happened. It's been like a dream."

If the initial triumph built belief, the second cemented a sense of acceptance on Europe's main circuit. Grace has been there before, but a year on the 2009 tour offered little more than tied-sixth at the South African Open. The missed cut count stood at 11 from 26 events; his playing privileges revoked.

Three years later, he emerged from a Volvo Golf Champions play-off with Els and Retief Goosen to lift a second trophy in two weeks.

"After that I thought maybe this is where I need to play," said Grace, whose low ball flight and steely putting indicate an impending British Open crown. "Then it jumped to bigger and better things. The one in China, Paul Casey was there and [Ian] Poulter.

"And at the Dunhill, you can't ask for a better field than that. I think now, this is where I belong."

When it appears he may sound too self-assured, Grace swiftly attributes his accomplishments to Louis Oosthuizen, a "close mate" and a former British Open champion, and Zach Rasego, his caddie.

"[Louis has] been a big inspiration," he said. "After his win at the Africa Open he said 'listen, you're falling behind and have to catch up'. And then I won two, saying 'now you've fallen behind'. It pretty much carried on from there."

Of Rasego, he said: "I get goose bumps whenever we're playing well, the way he handles himself out there. … this guy is really keen at what he's doing."

Grace, 24, cites Els and Gary Player as obvious role models, but it was at the WGC-Bridgestone in August where he got to enjoy three rounds with his idol. "Tiger [Woods] was always the guy I wanted to meet, always the guy I wanted to play with and always the guy who I wanted to handle myself like on the course," he said.

Grace's stock has risen, particularly in South Africa. He was welcomed warmly at last week's national Open and relaxes outside golf with Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, World Cup winners with the Springboks rugby team.

"It's nice to be able to go back to them and they're asking 'how does it feel doing that?' and you pretty much say 'why are you asking me this stuff? How did it feel winning the World Cup?'"

A beautifully understated response portrays the game's latest "somebody". If Grace does not register large in the mind thus far, he should through coming campaigns.

"I don't know him whatsoever,' said Padraig Harrington, the three-time major winner, at the Dunhill. "I'm just trying to figure out who this guy is who gets in the lead and just keeps going. "There's probably nobody else in golf at the moment I'd like to play with more than Branden Grace. He just keeps going - I might learn something."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE