Challenge Tour gives Grace great grounding

1/16/2012 12:51:05 PM
Branden Grace  (Getty Images)
Branden Grace (Getty Images)

Despite the presence of numerous European and indeed Major champions in the field, last week’s Joburg Open turned into a straight shootout between two former Challenge Tour players.

Eventual champion Branden Grace of South Africa and valiant runner-up Jamie Elson of England both earned their places on The European Tour through the Qualifying School Final Stage last December, but it was on the Challenge Tour that they first cut their teeth. 

In four seasons on the Challenge Tour Grace never quite managed to taste victory, but his runner-up finishes at the 2008 Ypsilon Golf Challenge – where he lost out in a play-off to Seve Benson – and at last year’s Acaya Open – where he closed with a stunning round of 64 – stood him in good stead over the closing stretch at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club on Sunday.

In the white heat of battle, the big-hitting Pretorian remained icy cool to repel Elson’s charge and so claim a one-shot win which moved him to the top of The Race to Dubai and ensured he will remain on The European Tour until at least the end of 2013.

Grace admitted that the victory had been “a long time coming”, which shows the expectation levels placed – by both himself and by others – on the shoulders of the 23 year old, who had been tipped for the top by none other than Gary Player.        

It was at a Sunshine Tour event hosted by the nine-time Major Champion that Grace broke his drought in November 2010, following a testing campaign on The European Tour in 2009, and he returned to the Challenge Tour in 2011 with belief restored and a renewed conviction that his breakthrough in Europe was imminent.  

In the event, his runner-up finish by one stroke at the Acaya Open was as close as Grace came to victory, but a further four top tens saw him to 24th in the final Challenge Tour Rankings and ensured his place at the Qualifying School Final Stage, where he would go on to take the 11th available card.

The rest is history, as Grace built on his ninth place finish at the South African Open with victory at the Joburg Open – in his 50th European Tour appearance – to become the 285th former Challenge Tour player to triumph on the top tier.

Grace, whose caddie Zack Rasego carried his compatriot Louis Oosthuizen’s clubs to victory at The Open Championship in 2010, said: “This has been coming for a long time. It’s fantastic to get my first European Tour win, and to get it at home makes it even more special.

“I wasn’t ready to be on The European Tour the first time (in 2009). I was a good player – just not quite good enough. But taking a step back and gaining more experience on the Challenge Tour was really good for me. I kept believing in myself and kept trying, and now I’ve got my rewards.

“It’s amazing, I’ve still got goosebumps. I’ll never forget that feeling walking up to the 18th green knowing that I had done it – that this was my week.”

It had looked liked it would be Elson’s week when the 30 year old from Surrey – who finished 27th in last year’s Challenge Tour Rankings – rampaged through the field with a flawless closing round of 63, which featured five successive birdies from the fourth hole and an eagle at the last, to set the clubhouse target on 16 under par.

But in the end, Elson had to settle for second place and the consolation of a cheque for €149,500, which is comfortably the highest of his European Tour career and gives him an outstanding chance of retaining his card.     

The same applies to his fellow former Challenge Tour players David Drysdale and Marc Warren, both of whom finished in a tie for third place – alongside Grace’s cousin Michiel Bothma – on 14 under par.