GEORGE, South Africa -- South African Branden Grace moved closer to consecutive European Tour victories as he claimed a four-stroke lead in Friday’s second round of the Volvo Golf Champions.
Grace, winner of his first European Tour event in last week’s Joburg Open in Johnnesburg, signed for a 66 and a 12-under-par 134 total at The Links at Fancourt. His victory last week is what got him into the field of this special no-cut event that is limited to European Tour winners from the last year as well as those with 10 or more career wins.
South Africa’s Thomas Aiken (70), and England’s Lee Slattery (65) are his nearest challengers on 8 under, while European Ryder Cup Captain Jose Maria Olazabal moved into contention on 7 under with a 68.
On another benign day of weather conditions, Grace birdied four of his first six holes and made his only bogey of the round at the seventh. After a birdie at the 10th, he made three consecutive birdies from the 14th.
“It’s been an amazing start for me. I’ve been really calm the past couple of days, which is a big relief,” he said. “It’s kept the nerves down, and that has allowed me to just play golf and enjoy it like last week.”
Grace’s ballstriking was once again the highlight of his game.
“I’ve been hitting the ball unbelievably well,” he said. “I’ve been putting myself in the right spots on the golf course and taking what has come my way.”
At four shots off the lead, Aiken is not concerning himself too much with Grace’s intimate knowledge of the course. Grace grew up in George and declares The Links his favorite course.
“I know Branden has a good knowledge of the golf course and is playing some fantastic golf, but there are still 36 holes left,” Aiken said.
Slattery is equally content with his position at the halfway mark of this tournament following a round he described as the best of his career.
“I think it’s probably the best, with it being such a big event and so many great players as well,” Slattery said. “It was just one of those rounds I’m going to remember for the rest of my life and hopefully it can kickstart something for me.”
Olazabal heads into the weekend only five behind the leader and enjoying his best start to a season in recent years.
“The last couple of years I’ve played pretty poorly, so improving that, it was not all that difficult,” he said.
The Volvo Champions is a four-round, no-cut event for players who won last year on the European Tour or have 10 or more career victories.
The round of the day was the 65 from Slattery, who also won a car. His playing partner Retief Goosen (68) won a car as well, as they combined with English amateur Mark Vandenberghe to win a one-round team event. Olazabal almost joined them in winning a car, lipping out for a hole-in-one at the short 17th.
For the second day running, though, Padraig Harrington finished with a double-bogey 7 and, having also dropped shots on the previous two holes, the Dubliner's 73 left him with eight shots to make up like British Open champion Darren Clarke (68) and England's Tom Lewis (74).
Only last month, 23-year-old Grace was at European Tour Q-School in Spain, but he came through that six-day ordeal tied for 10th place and has been flying ever since.
"I'm just really enjoying it out there," he said after grabbing eight birdies. "It's probably my favorite course in the world and coming back here is a fabulous feeling, especially playing well."
Slattery feared he would be at Q-School as well -- in his case for the ninth time -- until he won the Madrid Masters in October.
"Winning certainly gives you belief," he said after picking up an amazing 10 birdies, just as Nicolas Colsaerts had done in the opening round. "That's probably my best round out there, one I'm going to remember for the rest of my life.
"Because of the team prize I was willing Retief's putts in as well. God knows what the amateur felt like, but he handled it well,” he added. "I've had about 12 holes-in-one, but have never won a car before."
Olazabal insists that even if he grabs his first victory in seven years on Sunday, it will not change his view about September's match in Chicago.
"I've made that point very clear -- there is no way," said the 45-year-old Spaniard. "Even if I make the Ryder Cup (team) I will not play. I've answered that question."
Aiken has an added reason for wanting to come out on top -- he is on a campaign to help save the rhino and the more publicity he can get the better.
"I've started my own charity," he said. "It's disgusting what's happening. We've got a war going on basically with the east. Rhino horns are being valued a million dollars. We've got tractors on the grounds, roadblocks and help from the Air Force because they are shooting them from helicopters now.
"We've got about six years left until they are extinct and if we hang around too long we are going to be too late."
Colin Montgomerie had been hoping to improve on his opening 70, but instead shot 75 and so will go into the third round only tied for 24th, 11 strokes behind.