The big smile on Branden Grace’s face told you everything you needed to know. For not only had he shot a career-low round of 60 to lead the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the opening day, but his close friend Anton Haig had signalled a return to form with a 65 which, in many ways, was no less remarkable.
The phrase “a chequered career” could have been coined for Haig, from the highs of his breakthrough victory as a fresh-faced 20 year old at the 2007 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, to the lows of his retirement in November of last year due to a debilitating neck problem.
As well as the bulging disc in his neck, which Haig felt was a result of too much time spent bulking up in the gym, he also cited a loss of love for the game in his reasons for bringing a premature end to a career which had promised so much.
He said: “Golf has always been in my blood, but I got to a stage where I didn’t want to play anymore. I started hating the game and was playing for the wrong reasons, so I didn’t see any other option.”
But thanks in no small part to a motivational pep talk from his manager, Philip Manduca, and to the work he has undertaken with his coach, Simon Holmes, the big-hitting South African has worked his way back to form and fitness, and re-entered the winners’ enclosure on the eGolf Professional Tour in America last month.
Buoyed by his success in South Carolina, Haig arrived at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship confident of replicating the top ten finish he achieved here in 2007.
An extraordinary front nine of 29 at Kingsbarns, which included five birdies and an eagle, hinted at something very special indeed, and although he was unable to sustain his momentum after the turn, Haig was understandably delighted to have reminded the world of his talents.
He said: “Now I’ve got a support system around me that I truly am blessed to have, and I can’t ask for anything more. I’m loving golf again and loving competing, starting out like I did, being pumped up like I was, it makes you feel alive and it’s great to get that feeling back.”
Grace’s exploits on The European Tour this year – he is bidding to collect his fourth title this week – have inspired Haig to rediscover his love for the game, and his friend was keen to repay the compliment.
Grace said: “We are good mates, and when he achieved what he did a few years ago, I was looking up to him so it was nice to return the favour and help inspire him.
“I know he’s turned things around in his life and his career, and he's been working really hard on his game, so it’s nice to see him coming back and performing the way he is. I just hope he can keep it going, because he’s got all the talent in the world.”