GEORGE, South Africa -- South African Branden Grace beat his more experienced countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen in a playoff to win the Volvo Golf Champions on Sunday.
Grace birdied the first playoff hole at The Links at Fancourt—the par-5 18th—to claim his second consecutive victory on the European Tour, having won last week’s Joburg Open. Both Els and Goosen parred the hole.
The three players had finished the final round in a tie on 12-under 280 in the 35-man event for players who had won in the past year on the European Tour or own 10 or more career victories.
“It’s awesome. It’s been amazing, and it’s nice to sit here again on a Sunday afternoon as I did last week,” said Grace, who had earlier missed a three-foot putt for birdie on the 18th in regulation play that would have secured victory.
“You know you’ve got a three-footer and if you make it you’re a hero. I didn’t think I hit a bad putt, to be honest. But the confidence from last week played an important role,” he added. “I was lying in bed the night before the final round reading a couple of articles and saw that there were seven players with 13 majors chasing me. I thought it’s a big field behind me. But I just stuck to what I was doing.”
Grace’s victory was all the more satisfying because sponsors initially asked him to play as a marker in the 35-man field, before his victory in the Joburg Open saw him qualify automatically.
“I guess I would’ve definitely come in any case but fortunately I won and got myself in, and managed to finish it in the end,” said Grace, who grew up in George and considers the Links at Fancourt his favorite course.
The final round featured several lead changes before ending with three players at the top of the leaderboard.
Els set the mark in the clubhouse at 12 under after a sublime round of 67, including a birdie at the last. Goosen then birdied three of the final four holes to also finish on 12 under with a 70.
That left Grace and Nicolas Colsaerts out on the course. Both arrived on the 18th also on 12 under. Colsaerts hit a wayward drive and eventually missed a four-foot putt for par to stay in the playoff, instead finishing on 11 under with a 72.
Grace, meanwhile, missed the chance to claim victory on the last, but made no mistake in the playoff.
“Standing on the tee with Ernie and Retief in the playoff was unbelievable,” he said. “I was very calm, though. It’s one of those awesome things to know I’ve beaten two of my idols in a playoff.”
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.
Grace had fallen four behind when he double-bogeyed the third and bogeyed the fourth, but he covered the remaining 14 holes in 5 under to prove himself made of stern stuff. He then hit the longest drive when the trio returned to the 549-yard 18th for sudden death and, with Els driving into the rough and Goosen pushing his second, was the only one on the green in two.
Grace becomes the first player since Fred Couples in 1995 to follow his first victory on the circuit with another on his very next start. He was 258th in the world little over a week ago, but now moves inside the top 100.
Els hit his third to 18 feet and Goosen's chip stopped on the ridge 30 feet short of the hole. Grace, though, rolled his long first putt down to three feet and made no mistake after his rivals had both missed.
Els and Goosen were left as runners-up seven years after they left the rest for dead on the course in the South African Open, with Goosen winning by a shot on that occasion.
“A couple more putts here and there and that could have been something special,” said Els. "It's a very encouraging week, all four rounds under par, and I'm working on some good stuff."
Europe's Ryder Cup Captain Jose Maria Olazabal dropped back to sixth after sharing the lead early in the final round, while Padraig Harrington fell away to 10th. Colsaerts was also tied for the lead with one to play, but hit a wild drive and with a bogey-6 had to settle for fourth place, while Masters champion Charl Schwartzel finished two back.
At least Els is now closer to returning to the world's top 50, which he needs to do in the next two months to secure a place in the Masters, but Harrington's final-round 76 means he still has a lot of work to do to get back into the top 64 in time for next month's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Olazabal, at 596th in the world the lowest-ranked player taking part, said: "The only weak part was my driver. The rest of the game has been pretty good. At certain moments in the round it looked a little bit like the old days."
Pablo Martin and Thomas Levet, meanwhile, shared last place on 20 over, Martin recovering from his nightmare third-round 90 with a 73 and Levet managing a 76 despite slipping on some stairs and bruising his ribs. Levet is, of course, the man who broke a leg jumping in a lake to celebrate his French Open victory last July.