Grace looks to cap breakout season
After winning four times in his breakthrough season on the European Tour, South Africa's Branden Grace can cap it with a title he prizes above all: his home country's national open.
Scotland's Richie Ramsay is the only international player to win the historic South African Open in the past decade, making home players Grace, former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and defending champion Hennie Otto early favorites for victory at Serengeti this weekend.
Grace won at the Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions, China Open and Alfred Dunhill Links to put him sixth in the tour's Race to Dubai rankings in his first season since winning back his card.
The South African Open is the second oldest tournament in golf (1893) after the British Open (1860). A victory for Grace would put him alongside Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and South African greats Gary Player and Bobby Locke.
''I've really been looking forward to this. If you're a South African golfer, this is the one tournament you want to win,'' Grace said.
Germany's Martin Kaymer makes his first attempt at the Open title and what would be a first tournament victory this year. It would be something to go with the 8-foot putt that retained the Ryder Cup for Europe and has so far defined his season.
''Obviously it's a great thing that I can keep that for the rest of my life,'' Kaymer said of the putt at Medinah. ''Even when I watched it two weeks later, obviously, I knew what was going to happen, but I was never nervous watching it. I can only imagine how it was for the guys who had no idea, who were just watching it live.''
Kaymer — once the second-youngest player to be No. 1, before Rory McIlroy — was impressed with the Northern Irishman's year.
''It's quite impressive how Rory handles the whole situation at 23 years old. It takes some time to get used to the thought that you are quite a big athlete in the world, quite a big sportsman,'' Kaymer said. ''It's just something that you can be very, very proud of.''
While Kaymer talked of the ''rare'' excitement he had experienced from fans in South Africa, Grace was curious about the reception he will receive this week after emerging as the latest in a bunch of South African youngsters.
It'll likely be a warm welcome.
McIlroy undoubtedly reigned in 2012, winning the US and European money titles, but Grace gained some attention in Europe with an opening-round 60 at the Dunhill Links last month to lead from start to finish.
With the South African Open and then the season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai to come, Grace has a chance at more titles and a top-five finish or better on Europe's money list.
All after he lost his tour card at the end of 2009 and went back to qualifying school.
''Over the last couple of years, I've felt that I've played good golf, but never really got the push out of it. I never really got where I wanted to be,'' he said. ''Obviously, this year has been a dream year so far and going back home, I hope I get rewarded for what I've done.''
Grace may vie with Schwartzel and Otto for the title on Sunday and the $201,000 winner's check. There's also no Els, Goosen or Louis Oosthuizen at the 102nd South African Open.