THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After winning four times in his breakthrough season on the European Tour, South Africa’s Branden Grace can cap it with the one title he prizes above all: His home country’s jealously guarded national open.
Scotland’s Richie Ramsay is the only foreigner to win the historic South African Open over the last decade, making home players Grace, former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and defending champion Hennie Otto early tips for victory at Serengeti this weekend.
Grace won at the Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions, China Open and Alfred Dunhill Links to take him to sixth in the tour’s Race to Dubai rankings in his first season since winning back his card.
His home open — the second oldest tournament in golf after the British Open — is the one he really wants. It would put him alongside Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and South African greats Gary Player and Bobby Locke as winners.
"I’ve really been looking forward to this. If you’re a South African golfer, this is the one tournament you want to win," Grace said.
Mindful of the rare success here for foreign players, Germany’s Martin Kaymer makes his first attempt at the Open title and what would also be a first tournament victory this year.
It would be something to go with the eight-foot putt that retained the Ryder Cup for Europe and has so far defined his season.
"Obviously it’s a great thing that I can keep that for the rest of my life," Kaymer said of that putt at Medinah. "Even when I watched it two weeks later, obviously I knew what was going to happen, but I was never nervous watching it. I can only imagine how it was for the guys who had no idea, who were just watching it live."
On top-ranked Rory McIlroy’s supreme year, Kaymer — once the second youngest player to be No. 1 before McIlroy took that — was impressed.
"It’s quite impressive how Rory handles the whole situation at 23 years old. It takes some time to get used to the thought that you are quite a big athlete in the world, quite a big sportsman," Kaymer said. "It’s just something that you can be very, very proud of."
While Kaymer talked of the "rare" excitement he had experienced from fans in South Africa, Grace was curious about the reception he will receive this week after emerging as the latest in a rich new crop of South African youngsters.
It’ll likely be a warm welcome.
McIlroy undoubtedly reigned in 2012, winning the U.S. and European money titles, but Grace gained some attention in Europe with an opening-round 60 at the Dunhill Links last month to lead from start to finish.
With the South African Open and then the season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai to come, Grace has a chance at more titles and a top-five finish — maybe better — on Europe’s money list.
All after he lost his tour card at the end of 2009 and had to go back to qualifying school.
"Over the last couple of years I’ve felt that I’ve played good golf, but never really got the push out of it. I never really got where I wanted to be," he said. "Obviously this year has been a dream year so far and going back home, I hope I get rewarded for what I’ve done."
Grace’s form puts him ahead of Schwartzel and Otto for the title on Sunday and the $201,000 winner’s check. There’s also no Els, Goosen or Louis Oosthuizen at the 102nd South African Open.