As 2013 European Tour season begins, Grace looks to end his 2012 in style

Branden Grace
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Branden Grace shocked the European Tour with his breakout success last year, and it all began with vifctories in his native South Africa.
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PGA.com news services

Series: European Tour

JOHANNESBURG -- Branden Grace didn't have the year Rory McIlroy did. He'll probably take a repeat of 2012 just the same.

The South African got his European Tour card back before last season, then won four titles and finished sixth on the 2012 money list.

NELSON MANDELA CHAMPIONSHIP

This is the first edition of the Nelson Mandela Championship, and it is the first event on the 2013 European Tour schedule.

Just 11 days after McIlroy ended the 2012 European Tour campaign with five straight birdies and the DP World Tour Championship title to cap a dominant year, the 2013 Race to Dubai begins Thursday with the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship, the first of six events in South Africa.

While the season-opener in Durban doesn't have the big names of Dubai, the 24-year-old Grace is eager to repeat a season with $3 million in earnings, which qualified him for all four majors in 2013.

''I got a lot of credit for what I did last year, but with that comes pressure and responsibility,'' Grace said. ''This year I will be more focused on the majors. It's starting all over again, same as this year -- getting the first win and moving from there.''

Grace's breakthrough came at home at the 2012 Joburg Open last January. He went on to claim titles at the Volvo Golf Champions -- which will again be in South Africa next month --  the Volvo China Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

Grace and George Coetzee, also from South Africa, are the leading contenders for the new European Tour opener at Royal Durban this week among a bunch of qualifying school and Challenge Tour graduates. But that never guarantees success.

''Whether you're the favorite or the underdog, I think I've proved this year that anything can happen,'' Grace said.

The Nelson Mandela Championship is the start a jackpot year for South Africa on the European Tour. The country will host six tournaments -- the most ever -- with the addition of the Nelson Mandela, the Tshwane Open and the retention of the Volvo Golf Champions.

South Africa will introduce the $8.5 million Tournament of Hope at the end of 2013, the second-richest tournament in golf alongside the four WGC events and just behind the Players Championship.

The Tournament of Hope is not a European Tour event, but it will give South Africa back-to-back big-money events alongside its European Tour schedule if the Nedbank Golf Challenge invitational at Sun City stays in its regular slot.

Grace also leads the money list on southern Africa’s Sunshine Tour, which is co-sanctioning the Mandela Championship as well as next week's Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek. He sees his compatriot George Coetzee, runner-up to Henrik Stenson in the South African Open last month, as his biggest threat.

"I think next week will be the one decider of who's going to take it," he said. "We're both up for the challenge and for the last couple of months we've been joking around about which is mine and which is his. It's going to be a good couple of weeks.

"To get your name on the Order of Merit trophy is something on its own," he added. "It's another good thing to put your name in the record books for.

"Although it's the end of the season, there is still a lot up for grabs. I know in Georgie's case he wants to win -- he can get into the Volvo (Golf Champions), which is a big event coming up," he said. "Whether you're the favorite or the underdog, I think I've proved this year that anything can happen."

As for next year, Grace, currently 36th in the world, said: "I will be more focused on the majors -- I've secured my spots for all four. Every guy wants to win one, but next year I just want to find my feet in the States. I can't say win a major, but try to compete in them and in the bigger events and really try to get comfortable out there.

"Then again, if it's your week it's your week, so hopefully I can pull it through."

Many of the players who graduated from last week's European Tour Q-School have an instant chance to make a name for themselves like Grace did -- and also some of those who failed. Former Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson and Welshman Rhys Davies, for example, have both received invitations.

Wilson missed out by only two shots at PGA Tour Q-School in California, but Davies, one of Britain's brightest prospects only two years ago, didn’t even make it through the 72-hole cut after finishing 121st on last season's European Tour money list -- two places too low to keep his card.