Branden Grace produced an addictive blend of power off the tee and precise, risk-free golf as he surged to a seven-stroke victory in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek in Malelane on Sunday.
Grace has now led a European Tour event going into the final round on five occasions and has won every time; whatever it is that courses through his veins in those pressure situations, the sports medicine industry would no doubt love to turn it into a drug.
Without detracting from the quality of golf he produced on Sunday in shooting a four-under-par 68, Grace’s task was made easier by his nearest challengers, Lucas Bjerregaard and Danny Willett, both playing the back nine as if they were in a stupor, plummeting down the leaderboard.
Grace dared to take driver off the tee on a course that has plenty of punishing bush to catch the offline shot.
“I was great off the tee, on a course where you really need to be. I felt so comfortable with my driver and the par-fives were the big turnaround today, I played them in one-over yesterday [Saturday], but today I was four-under,” Grace said.
The 26-year-old started well with birdies at the second and fourth holes and even though he bogeyed the par-three seventh after finding the matted grass left of the green, he was out in 34 and was two ahead of Willett.
Bjerregaard had been knocked to the canvas by a triple-bogey six at the seventh. His tee shot was even further left than Grace’s, in thicker grass, but his chip looked like a good one. Unfortunately for the Dane, it just kept rolling on the hard and fast green, past the hole and into the water.
He was probably still upset about his bad luck when he bogeyed the eighth, but then everything fell apart on the back nine as Bjerregaard came home in an astonishing 50 comprising five bogeys, two double-bogeys and a quadruple-bogey on the par-four 11th. His final round of 89 is surely the worst by a player in the leading group on the last day of a tournament.
Willett was two-under for his round through 15 holes, but his cheeky smile turned into a scowl on 16 when his tee-shot was short of the green and in the water on the par-three. He then bogeyed 17 and was thoroughly disheartened by the time he carded an eight on the 18th to finish in a tie for fourth on 10-under after a 76.
Their ham-fisted efforts at catching him brought some sympathy from Grace.
“This course does that to you, as soon as you start to push it bites you. Lucas was a bit unlucky on the seventh and after that nothing went his way. But to win so convincingly is nice, it’s a great start to the new season after a hard year,” Grace said.
Just to add to the local flavour of celebration, Louis Oosthuizen shot a fine three-under-par 69 and climbed into second place on 13-under and was waiting to spray his good friend Grace with champagne on the 18th green.
It was a win to savour for Grace, beating a quality field and returning to the European Tour’s winners’ circle after two years.
“It’s something special being the first player to win wire-to-wire here because this is one of the tournaments every South African golfer wants to win, especially because of what Mr and Mrs Rupert do for golf. My game was spot-on today, there weren’t a lot of misses, maybe two bad shots all day,” Grace said.
Englishman Andrew Johnston, who finished on top of the Challenge Tour rankings, shot a one-over-par 73 on Sunday, but it was enough for him to jump up to third, while South African Trevor Fisher Jnr was on fire on the back nine, carding five birdies to finish with a 69 and tied with Willett in fourth place.