Grace breezed past fellow South African Jake Roos, who shot a superb seven-under-par 65 in the morning, to lead the European Tour co-sanctioned event by three strokes, with a pair of Englishmen, rookie Matt Ford and Sun City champion Danny Willett, lurking on six-under-par.
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.
“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.
The back nine, with its three par-fives, is traditionally the place to cash in at Leopard Creek and Grace collected six birdies, but he was also brilliant on the front nine, birdieing the first, third, sixth and seventh holes.
“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.
Willett was also never in the market for bogey as he cruised to his 66 and he will look to challenge Grace when he tees off early on the second day.
Roos, playing his first event with a fully-fledged European Tour card, also had a fine day with a dream start as he started on the par-four 10th and promptly holed his second from 163 metres with a five-iron for eagle.
“The first hole, when I holed out with my second, was just the ice-breaker I needed. The five-iron came out perfectly, it looked good all the way but I couldn’t see 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, 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 15-20 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.”
There are, however, prices to pay on this highly-rated course if golfers are off-line, as Charl Schwartzel discovered in another up-and-down round that featured four bogeys and seven birdies for a three-under 69. Another of the favourites, Louis Oosthuizen, is also on three-under.