Grace can make it five
Last updated: 4th December 2012
Just 11 days after Rory McIlroy wrapped up the 2012 Race to Dubai at Jumeirah, the starters gun is set this week to start the 2013 Race in sunny South Africa.
This at Durban's oldest golfing institution, the Royal Durban Golf Club, where the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa will launch the 2013 Race To Dubai with its Thursday tee-off.
Along with this new event, the 2013 Race to Dubai will feature a minimum of 45 tournaments around the world, with it's 12-month, world-wide schedule culminating in a new, four-tournament 'Final Series' that will again climax with the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Europe's biggest guns, including McIlroy, who is currently firmly embedded as the world number one, and Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood, the world numbers two, four and six respectively, won't be at Royal Durban this week, but fittingly South Africa's brightest upstart in years, the 24-year-old Branden Grace, will be.
Grace, the European Tour's only four-time winner this season and, after Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa's second-highest finisher in the final Race To Dubai standings - Oosthuizen was third with €3 187 364 and Grace 6th with €2 502 501 - can look back on a phenomenal season. His achievements are made even better when you consider that he came onto the tour in January after first having to fight for his player's card at the Tour's dreaded, pre-season qualifying school.
Currently down to 36 on the world rankings, Grace began his spectacular run in January with back to back victories at the Joburg Open and the Volvo Golf Champions where, playing on his home course in George in the Southern Cape, he beat his boyhood heroes Ernie Els and Retief Goosen in a play-off that earned him the biggest purse ever paid to the winner of a full-field event in South Africa.
From there he went on to his third triumph at the Volvo China Open before landing another big fish at the Alfred Dunhill Links championship in Scotland.
He hasn't won since, but he made it very clear that he was no flash in the pan at the 2012 season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Here he contended strongly before eventually finishing sixth behind a stellar group of Major and World Golf Championship title holders that included (in the order that they finished) McIlroy, Rose, Charl Schwartzel, Donald and Oosthuizen.
This was only 11 days ago so in this kind of form and together with the fact that he is back in his native South Africa where his magnificent year was ignited, it must make him one of the top favourites to claim a title he says he would much like to own because of it's connections with the highly regarded and much loved Nelson Mandela.
"It's the first time that he (Mandela) has done something like this; putting his name to a golf tournament," Grace said this week.
"What he has done for South Africa is amazing. He has turned things round and everyone looks up to him.
"I see myself as an ambassador for the event and that gives you an extra thrill. I'm going to go out there and try hard to do the job.
"Royal Durban is a great venue. I played this course a long time ago so I'm looking forward to going back."
All that said, Grace must know that even with McIlroy and company out of the way this week, winning won't be easy on a short, old-fashioned 18-hole course built inside Durban's storied Greyville Racecourse.
It is a lot more difficult than it's wide-open, near tree-less layout makes it look.
It's wicked rough, some well placed bunkers and its true - but hard to read greens - are it's stoutest defenses when the wind doesn't blow.
When it does, it can have more teeth than anything else - and blow it will, according to reliable Golfweather.com, especially on the afternoon of the first day when it is expected to get up to 34 km/h.
On the other three days it is not expected to blow any harder than 24 km/h and shouldn't be too much of a problem - if you can hit your tee shots and approach irons accurately and can successfully read the greens.
Oosthuizen, Els, Schwartzel and Goosen will not be part of the strong South African contingent this week, but perennial European Tour contender George Coetzee will be - and after his second-placed finish behind Henrik Stenson in the SA Open a few weeks back, he must be mustard keen to make the winning breakthrough that has so far continued to evade him.
Other South Africans whose records suggest that they too will be strong contenders include, Thomas Aiken, Garth Mulroy, Jaco van Zyl, Richard Sterne and Hennie Otto, but perhaps the stand-out among this group is Durban-bred Tim Clark, who has won both in his homeland and in the USA where he now lives and plays most of his golf.
Yes there are plenty of them too.
They range from seasoned Tour warriors like England's Oliver Wilson, David Horsey and Graeme Storm, Spain's Pablo Larrazabal, Dane Soren Keelson, Ireland's Peter Laurie and Frenchman Gregory Havre to recent European Tour Q-school winner John Parry and Challenge Tour graduates Espen Kofstad of Norway, Andreas Harto of Switzerland and Gary Lockerbie of England.
Footnote: The Nelson Mandela Championship which is co-sanctioned by both the European and Sunshine Tours, is sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund - a charity established by South Africa's founding democratic President as an expression of his commitment to the cause of children.
The presenting sponsor ISPS Handa, another charitable body which aims to promote blind and disabled golf around the world, also sponsored the Wales Open and the Perth International last season, as well as several European Senior Tour events in recent years.
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