Branden Grace will bid to begin the New Year in the same stunning style as he started 2012 when he defends a European Tour title for the first time at this week’s Volvo Golf Champions.
At the elite €2million tournament 12 months ago, the South African notched his second successive victory on The European Tour at the expense of his boyhood heroes Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, beating the illustrious duo with a birdie on the first hole of a sudden death play-off.
Grace, who had only earned his place in the 2012 Volvo Golf Champions with his win in the previous week’s Joburg Open, went on to capture two more titles – including another Volvo-sponsored event, the China Open – in a superb season which culminated in him finishing in sixth place in The Race to Dubai.
After taking a three-week break over the festive period, the 24 year old Pretorian will now bid to claim his third European Tour title on South African soil at Durban Country Club, in Durban, which will host the Volvo Golf Champions for the first time this week.
He said: “I’ve never defended a title before, so it’s another first for me. I know there’s going to be a lot of hype around the event when I get there, but that’s just one of those things I will have to deal with and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.
“I know for a fact that I’m a better player than I used to be, so I’m up for the test of trying to defend my title. It’s going to be a new experience for me, so we’ll see how I cope with it and hopefully I can come away with another win to start the year in style.
“Winning the tournament last year was absolutely awesome. After my victory at Joburg I got the opportunity to play, so I knew my game was in good health and I always thought I’d be a tough man to beat at Fancourt, which is where I grew up playing the game.
“Everything worked my way, a little bit of local knowledge kicked in and the way it finished made the week even better. I never would have dreamed of beating Ernie and Retief in a play-off, so managing to do that was the cherry on top.
“I’d literally only just finished my round, and they pushed me straight back onto the tee. The only difference this time was that there was now two of my biggest idols – and two of the greatest players in South African golf – standing next to me on the tee!
“But I managed to stay in the present, which really helped me to stay focused and not get too overwhelmed by the situation I was in. It was a great feeling knowing I had the game to beat them, and it gave me the confidence to believe I can handle being in that sort of position in future events. The win led to a lot of success for me which has made me a better player, so I’m very much looking forward to the challenges ahead.”
Grace will be joined in Durban by his cousin and fellow European Tour champion Darren Fichardt, plus their three Major-winning compatriots Els, Goosen and Louis Oosthuizen.
Four more Major Champions will also take their places in the field, with Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie and José María Olazábal bidding to add their names to those of Grace and the 2011 champion Paul Casey on the coveted trophy.
Other notable names in the star-studded line-up include Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts, a winner of two Volvo-sponsored events, and three-time European Tour champion Francesco Molinari of Italy, both members of Olazábal’s triumphant 2012 Ryder Cup Team.
Scotland’s Scott Jamieson, currently second in The Race to Dubai, will be aiming to continue his fine recent form, having followed up his debut victory at the Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa, at nearby Royal Durban, with a tied third finish in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at the end of last year.
In addition to the first two winners of the 2013 season, every winner from The 2012 European Tour International Schedule, past champions of the Volvo Golf Champions and players with ten or more European Tour victories are all eligible to compete in the event, making a field of 33 for the first event of the year.
Durban Country Club, which has hosted the South African Open Championship no fewer than 17 times, boasts stunning views of the Indian Ocean and was recently voted one of the ‘Top 100 Golf Courses in the World’ by Golf Magazine USA.