THE team of the year has already been resolved. Rory McIlroy, though, might have some competition in the battle to be the European Tour’s player of the year.
Step forward Branden Grace, who has now claimed four titles on that circuit this season after completing a wire-to-wire win in the £3.5 million Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews.
On an idyllic day in the Auld Grey Toun – some of what they had all week for the pro-am event wouldn’t go amiss for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in around two years’ time – the 24-year-old from Pretoria underlined exactly why he’s been widely tipped to follow in the footsteps of South African compatriots Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel by becoming a major winner.
Four ahead at the start, Grace, who’d set up his title triumph – the fifth in total this year – with a stunning 60 at Kingsbarns on Thursday, was caught at one point by Thorbjorn Olesen. The Dane, another of the game’s brightest talents, also came close to leaving Grace with a pressure putt from five feet at the last when his eagle attempt hung on the edge of the hole.
There was no denying, however, that the Springbok was a worthy winner. A closing 70 saw him finish with a 22-under-par aggregate of 266, two fewer than Olesen (68), with Sweden’s Alexander Noren (69) a further two shots back in third place. The winner’s cheque of just under £490,000 has moved Grace into third place in the Race to Dubai, just over £600,000 behind leader McIlroy. The world No 1 is in his sights on that money-list.
“To win at the home of golf, either as an amateur or a professional, is special,” admitted Grace, who said he had found the perfect inspiration on the internet before teeing off when he saw a photograph of Oosthuizen, his close friend, standing on the Swilcan Bridge after winning the 2010 Open Championship.
The weather had helped bring out a good last-day crowd. They’d paid for the privilege and fair play to them for that. Watching tournament golf on the Old Course is only for those with plenty of patience. It took the final group, for instance, eight minutes short of six hours to get round.
In terms of excitement, it’s certainly not the last day of a Ryder Cup. There’s far too much standing about. Part of it is down the double greens. Then there’s the amateur element. There’s no denying the fact that the event has been turned into something that has become attractive to more than just the hardened golf fans. Autograph hunters are always out in force. Over the years, they’ve loved getting up close to the likes of Michael Douglas, Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Costner just as much as seeing Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Luke Donald strut their stuff.
Should the amateurs still be around on the final day, however? By then, they’ve all had their round on each of the three courses. There doesn’t really seem to be any need for the leading batch to play on the last day. The pros, after all, are playing for big bucks then. They shouldn’t have to face any unnecessary distractions.
Take yesterday, for example. In Stephen Gallacher’s group, Steve Halsall knifed a pitch at the ninth and almost took out six spectators at the back of the green. He certainly wasn’t having much fun at that point and it couldn’t have got any better when Gallacher played his ball at the 16th to incur a two-shot penalty.
Not that Grace seemed to be unsettled by the format, in which his amateur partner was none other than Gaynor Rupert, whose husband, Johan, is the tournament sponsor. He started with a birdie. For the first time all week, the birdies then dried up for a spell. After two bogeys in five holes – at the seventh and 11th – he was tied with Olesen, his playing partner.
What had looked like being a stroll to victory had suddenly become a test of character for the young South African. His response bore the hallmarks of a potential major champion. He birdied three in a row from the 12th, where a 15-footer dropped in through the side door. The rest, in truth, were playing for second place after that. “I had a couple of slip-ups here and there but otherwise everything went to plan,” said the winner.
Without Grace and Gallacher on the leaderboard, the event could have been mistaken for the Scandinavian Closed Championship. A Dane (Olesen) and three Swedes (Noren, Fredrik Andersson Hed and Patrick Sjoholm) were all to the fore for most of the week. While Olesen missed out on this occasion, it shouldn’t be long until something big falls to him. He could even be a dark horse for the next Ryder Cup.
Grace is looking a good bet for the Presidents Cup debut next year. He was asked earlier in the week if he felt the South Africans could muster a team strong enough on its own to take on either Europe or America. His answer suggested he didn’t understand the question properly but, if he had, the answer would surely have been “Yes”.