Reflecting on the day’s golf during the 40-minute drive back to the hotel, on the outskirts of George, to me it looked like young Branden Grace had blown his chance of making history. He had managed to turn a four-shot advantage into a share of the lead, after the third round of the Volvo Golf Champions, giving the big names a golden opportunity to thwart him.
The taxi driver interrupted this reflection: “Do you think anyone will catch Branden tomorrow?”
I had to try and politely tell the driver I thought young Grace, who was a member of the nearby George Country Club, had no chance in the final round.
The driver, who later told me he went to school with Grace, picked up on the little faith I had in the 23-year-old, who was at the top of the leader board in the first fully sanctioned European tour event to be held in South Africa.
“I’m telling you, Branden wants it more than any of those other guys. Since he started playing in standard four, he’s been mad about this game,” said the driver with conviction.
The other guys the driver spoke of were: Masters champion Charl Schwartzel; double US Open champion Retief Goosen; 2010 Open Championship winner Louis Oosthuizen and three-time Major winner Ernie Els.
Grace, whose parents owned a small restaurant in George, grew up among his heroes in a childhood which revolved around the golf course. He was part of the Ernie Els Foundation, set up by the Big Easy to identify new talent in South African golf, and his cousin is Sunshine Tour veteran Michiel Bothma. Grace enjoyed a remarkable amateur career, including a victory in the South African Amateur Stroke Play Championship in 2006 against a very strong international field. With the win, he was invited to the SA Open where he won the silver medal, finishing as the top amateur.
“Towards the end of school he hardly came to all the classes, he was always out on the course playing. Then when he did come to school, he’d pass the exams. The dude is talented,” said the driver.
I had just come from Grace’s press conference, where he fielded all the questions posed to him, but I noticed he had a resigned look about him, no doubt thinking that he had already let the tournament slip from his grasp.
Halfway through the final round, my prediction was coming true. Els was leading on 11 under par and Grace had fallen almost completely out of contention, playing the first four holes in three over par. Schwartzel and Goosen were also challenging.
Grace, who had only earned his European tour card through the gruelling European Tour Qualifying School barely a month prior in December, had finally come unstuck.
His victory at the Johannesburg Open a week before came on the very different Royal Johannesburg Country Club, and the Links at Fancourt, in the Western Cape, was also a different beast.
Nobody seemed to tell the man dubbed ‘Amazing Grace’, though, as he launched a birdie assault coming home.
Standing on the 18th tee, he was tied with Goosen and Els, who had already finished on 12 under.
The 18th is a reachable par five and a long hitter like Grace would be expected to birdie.
He did the hard work, reached the green in two and putted up to a couple of feet with his third shot. All that was left was to nudge home the four-footer for the win.
That was when disaster struck.
He was now in a playoff with his childhood heroes, Goosen and Els.
Grace looked visibly sick after he threw away the chance to win outright.
The trio went back to the 18th tee for sudden death.
Els found trouble with his drive, while Goosen and Grace found the fairway.
Grace, like moments earlier, found the green with his approach and putted marginally closer than in regulation play.
The veterans weren’t able to birdie, and this time Grace was able to slam home the winning putt and let the world take notice.
With his second victory in as many weeks, Grace became the second-youngest player in European tour history to win back-to-back events. He also became the third Qualifying School graduate to win twice in the year after graduation.
Grace finally spoke about the nerves afterwards.
“I was lying in bed last night reading a couple of articles, and there were 14 Majors [winners] behind me chasing me… just standing on the tee with Ernie and Retief was unbelievable in the playoff. There was a calm about me, the whole playoff hole actually. I think I was more nervous and more pumped up going down the last hole when I walked up the fairway.”
“Knowing I’ve beaten Ernie and Retief in a playoff, I know that I can do it again.”
With Grace’s two wins, he leads the European Tour’s moneylist—The Race to Dubai—with earnings of 570,000 euros ($748,000) after four events and rising from 258 in the world rankings to inside the top 100. The boy from George has thrust himself into his rightful position among the world’s golfing elite.
The fresh face of golf is likely to be smiling all the way to the bank for many years to come.