Branden Grace (Getty Images)
Branden Grace became only the second player in European Tour history to win three times in the season after graduating through Qualifying School as he cantered to victory at the Volvo China Open.
Three clear of last year’s winner Nicolas Colsaerts overnight, the South African’s lead on the final day was never fewer than two shots and a closing 69 saw him finish 21 under at Binhai Lake.
“I stayed really calm today,” said Grace. “I kept hitting the ball well. I missed a couple of shots the first couple of holes but regrouped well and made the birdies where it counts on the par fives, and just stayed with it from there.
“I thought my first win was around the corner [this season]. To have three before May is literally unbelievable, but I’ve been playing well so I’ve been feeling like I can win and I’ve been giving myself opportunities.”
“It’s just amazing and shows you the standard of golf that I am playing right now. To have three win on The European Tour at this stage of my career is awesome.
“It could have been different this week – Nicolas was superb the last two days and came up short with a few putts that could have made a difference. It helped that I was playing with him but it was still hard.
“If I think back now to last year and playing on the Challenge Tour and just trying to get back to the main Tour and really just trying to make a living it was tough at points. So to be here with three wins is amazing.
“Everything is going great. I wouldn’t have thought I would have been top 70 in the world and it is nice to know that I don’t have to worry about a lot of stuff and I will just be able to play the game with a smile on my face and try to push on from here. I want to get better, I want to win more titles and I want to play the Majors and make a name for myself around the world.”
As well as matching Johan Edfors’ 2006 accomplishment of winning three times after coming through Qualifying School in the winter, the 23 year old joins some illustrious company in The European Tour record books.
Only two players have won three European Tour titles in a single season at a younger age – Seve Ballesteros did it three times between 1977 and 1980, and Sandy Lyle did it in 1979.
Grace also becomes only the third South African to win three times in a single season, and again he is in the company of Major winners – Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are the others to do so.
The Joburg Open and Volvo Golf Champions winner’s achievements are all the more remarkable given there have been only 15 events so far on the 2012 Race to Dubai, and few would bet against him adding to his trophy haul before the season’s end.
Having pulled three clear of Belgian Colsaerts with a sublime third round 64, Grace’s first shot on returning to the course was not a good one - but he holed a 15 foot par putt at the first to atone for his wayward drive.
Colsaerts applied some pressure when he splashed out of the bunker at the second to three feet to set up a birdie putt, but Grace followed him in from two feet.
Both players in the final group parred the third, but another poor drive from Grace at the fourth saw him drop a shot.
He responded with birdies at the long sixth and struck his approach to five feet for another gain at the seventh.
Colsaerts matched the latter, and closed the gap to two by the turn with another birdie at the ninth.
The 29 year old Colsaerts dropped a shot at the tenth, and Grace looked odds on to win when he birdied the 12th from five feet.
Despite some hefty strikes off the tee, Colsaerts could not find another birdie until the last – although it was still an important blow as it gave him solo second from England’s Richard Finch.
“I thought I could have got little meaner on Branden today because I had a few chances and I could have closed the gap a little more but in the end I left him a bit too much breathing space,” said Colsaerts.
“Apart from that I played pretty good. I didn’t putt as well at the weekend but I think I played pretty good all day but he never really made a mistake.”
Grace, meanwhile, was completely unflappable as he parred his way in for a three shot victory.
“I’m definitely here to win every week I play now,” he added.