DURBAN, South Africa -- Branden Grace is serious about building on his breakthrough season in 2012, starting with the defense of his Volvo Golf Champions title this week.
The first event of 2013 on the European Tour circuit features an elite field of 35 players who among them have won 14 majors and 234 European Tour titles. Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Thomas Bjorn are in the field as winners of more than 10 career title, and they will compete for the $2.6 million prize fund against 28 European Tour champions from 2012.
A relative unknown outside his native South Africa prior to the start of last season, Grace announced his arrival as one of the game’s rising stars by claiming five titles worldwide, with four coming on The European Tour.
After opening his victory account in the Joburg Open at the start of the year, Grace promptly knocked off Ernie Els and Retief Goosen – his two golf idols – in a playoff to secure his second title in as many weeks at the second edition of the Volvo Golf Champions.
Having flown largely under the radar last time – indeed, he only secured his place in the elite field at the 11th hour courtesy of his victory in Johannesburg – Grace is now one of the favorites. But the 24-year-old has grown in confidence and stature over the past 12 months, and is keen to continue on his steep learning curve.
“I’ve never defended a title before, so I’ve been looking forward to this week for some time now,” he said. “It’s a great event to play in, and you have some of the world’s best here. So it’s going to be a tough task [to defend my title], but I’m up for the challenge.
“Winning the tournament last year was probably the biggest steppingstone of my career so far – and the way it finished just made it that extra bit special,” he explained. “It was amazing and sometimes I still can’t believe it actually happened. But I know now that I can do it, and I think the extra bit of confidence I got from winning – and beating my two golfing idols – allowed me to do what I did.
If it wasn’t for his victory in the 2012 Volvo Golf Champions, Grace doesn’t think he would’ve come close t having the year he did. “No matter what else happens in my career, I’ll always look back on this tournament as a very special event, and 2012 as a very special year,” he said.
Whilst he sometimes still pinches himself to check it was not just a dream, Grace no longer feels awed to be competing against the game’s elite, even with seven major champions vying for the title at Durban Country Club this week.
Grace admits it will be a tall order to replicate his 2012 heroics, but the Pretorian has targeted a fast start to the New Year as he bids to scale the same dizzy heights.
“Last year was remarkable, so if I get even close to that, I’ll be happy with it. I just want to keep going in the right direction, and if I can keep getting better and keep swinging the way I am, you never know what can happen,” he said.
“This time last year, who would’ve thought I’d win four titles in a season?,” he added. “That’s the beauty of this game – if you work hard enough and keep believing, you can achieve anything you want.”