Early leader Jake Roos was relegated to second by fellow South African Grace’s brilliance, his superb 65 leaving him, astonishingly, three shots off the pace.
Two Englishmen, Matt Ford, like Roos celebrating his newly-acquired European Tour card, and Danny Willett, the winner of last weekend’s Nedbank Golf Challenge, were a further stroke back on six-under-par 66, while Spain’s Nacho Elvira and South Africans Michael Hollick and Tjaart van der Walt were on five-under.
Grace started well with a birdie on the par-four first hole and reached the turn in 31 after three more birdies on the third, sixth and seventh holes, before putting his foot down on the tougher back nine and collecting six more birdies.
Grace’s last triumph came in the 2012 Alfred Dunhill Links at St Andrew’s and his world ranking has plummeted to 117, but he did finish 31st in last season’s Race to Dubai. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old is determined to recapture the glories of 2012 and has made the perfect start to his 2015 European Tour campaign.
“If I play well, then the ranking will take care of itself. Last season wasn’t as bad as people say, it’s tough playing on both tours and I struggled in the U.S.
“But I feel very comfortable in Europe and South Africa and I’m close if not there already to my game in 2012. I’ve been playing well for the last month, I’m in a really good state of mind, I’ve gone back to my 2012 driver and I changed to a claw-grip on the greens three months ago, so that’s just getting better.
“Plus it was obviously a mistake in 2013 to part ways with Zack [Rasego, his caddy], but I’ve learnt from that, we’ve had a good chat and that was the end of it. When he pulls me off a shot, I trust him,” Grace said after his faultless round.
Defending champion Charl Schwartzel fired seven birdies but it was another bad day in terms of consistency for South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer, with swing mistakes and errors on the green leading to four bogeys, which left him seven off the pace on three-under after a 69.
Grace managed to avoid the sort of momentum-killers that have been plaguing Schwartzel recently.
“It’s one of those courses where you can get going and I didn’t really make any mistakes. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a look at a bogey in my round, but it’s nice to get the ball-striking going and make a few putts. It was good shot after good shot, I like this course, it suits my game,” a delighted Grace said.
Roos also had one of those glorious days, a bogey on the par-three 12th, when he missed the green off the tee, his only blemish. The 34-year-old knew it was going to be a fine day when he eagled his opening hole, the par-four 10th.
“The first hole, when I holed out with my second from 163 metres, was just the ice-breaker I needed. The five-iron came out perfectly, it looked good all the way but I couldn’t see it go in because of the slope of the green. One guy put his hand up at the green and I just started laughing and took it from there,” Roos said after his fabulous round.
“I felt good about the day before I started, I was comfortable, swinging nicely and I had some great birdie putts on the back nine, where there are more birdie opportunities. The front nine is quite tough, especially the opening holes. Six is the only really short one and I was able to take advantage there, and then I had a nice putt on the last from 15 feet. The ninth is playing long and I had to hit a six-iron in, a bit into the wind. But I was rolling the putts very nicely today.”
The 36-year-old Ford, who has only just won his European Tour card after nine previous visits to Tour School, bogeyed the first hole but only dropped one more shot, on the par-five 13th. Superb iron-play gave him plenty of birdie opportunities and the man who was toying with the idea of giving up golf to become a postman converted eight of them.
“I’m very happy, it’s a dream start to the season after getting my card for the first time. The swing felt good and the accuracy of my iron-play – I was inside 10 feet nine or ten times – gave me lots of opportunities and my putting was solid,” Ford said.
But none of the leaders will be sleeping easy with Willett, who triumphed at Sun City in such emphatic fashion, lurking only four strokes back from Grace after a faultless 66.