Inspired Branden Grace Fires Round of 62 to Win South African Open
ON A day of high emotion, Branden Grace shot a final round of 62 to win the South African Open, and England’s Marcus Armitage, whose game fell apart during the final round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship before Christmas, did enough to secure himself a place in the field for The Open Championship at Royal St George’s in July.
Grace came from nowhere to win the tournament thanks to a sensational round of 62. It marks a huge turnaround for the South African, who finished a miserable 113th in last season’s Race to Dubai. He vowed to put matters right and duly finished third in the Alfred Dunhill.
The final round was a thrilling duel between Grace and fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion. They could not be separated at the turn as they put on a stunning show, with Oosthuizen sending the huge crowds at Johannesburg’s Randpark Golf Club into raptures with a hole-in-one at the eighth.
But Grace played brilliantly on the back nine, needing only 22 putts in his round of 62 as he finished the week on 21 under par, three ahead of Oosthuizen. The victory secured Grace a place at The Open, where he will be joined by fellow qualifiers Armitage and Jaco Ahlers.
Armitage birdied the last to finish at 16 under and secure his spot at Royal St George's Golf Club, with Ahlers a shot behind alongside Jack Senior, who was edged out for The Open spot by virtue of being eight places lower than Ahlers on the Official World Golf Ranking.
This was Grace’s ninth European Tour victory but his first since his Rolex Series triumph at the 2017 Nedbank Golf Challenge and sees him complete his set of the biggest trophies in South African golf after also winning the Joburg Open, Alfred Dunhill Championship and Dimension Data Pro-Am.
"That was remarkable," he said. "I played flawless golf and I can't remember the last time the putter was that hot. This is the one I really wanted. This means so much to any South African, winning on home soil, the guys get so behind you and it's such an emotional feeling. It's the first win with the little one here so he's going to have a photo with the trophy and then it's a good birthday wish to my Mrs today, she's a birthday girl today so it's a good birthday present."
Grace bogeyed the second but hit back brilliantly, making a gain on the next after a wonderful approach from the rough, eagling the fourth from 25 feet and making another birdie on the fifth from slightly closer range.
The 31-year-old was in tied for the lead when Armitage three putted the sixth and he hit the front with a 15 foot right to lefter on the seventh. An excellent up and down on the next kept his nose in front but he was soon leapfrogged by Oosthuizen. After seven straight pars, his tee shot looked to be heading towards the water but it took a big hop left off the fringe and rolled into the cup for the second ace of the season.
A 25 foot putt right on the ninth hole had Grace back level and he led on his own after a stunning recovery from the rough on the 11th. A wonderful approach brought Oosthuizen level on the same hole but Grace found another gear, with birdies on the 12th, 13th and 14th giving him a three-shot lead.
Amateur Jayden Trey Schaper, 18, chipped in at the last to end a remarkable week at 13 under alongside fellow South Africans George Coetzee, Hennie du Plessis, JC Ritchie and Martin Rohwer, and English 2015 champion Andy Sullivan.
An emotional Armitage dedicated his second chance to play in The Open to his partner Lucy. The 32-year-old revealed how 2019 had been a tough year for him and Lucy, as he relied on credit cards while earning less than 15,000 euros in European Challenge Tour prize money after buying a house. His third place finish here saw him pocket more than five times last season's winnings, and he paid tribute to Lucy.
"It's hard for her," he said. "Shes working, we've got a house and we just don't get the quality time. This one's for Lucy. I can tell Lucy that she doesn't have to do any nails that week, she can book it off and we can go and enjoy The Open. Where I was a few months ago, I was off the cliff. I've turned it around. A few people have given me a few keys to change my life and that's proof you can do it, you can do it in months. I'm a product of the hard work I've put in."
It will be Armitage's second time in the field for The Open after he qualified in 2018 but saw his chances of contending hampered by a freak injury. He went indoor skydiving and dislocated his shoulder ten days before the event but was still on the first tee come Thursday, although he did not make the weekend. It is a safe bet he won’t be doing that this year.
There are many things in life that are more important than winning golf tournaments. Just ask Australia’s Cameron Smith. He won the Sony Open after a playoff, but afterwards his attention was more focused on the plight of the people back home than the cheque he had just pocketed. His homeland has been ravaged by bushfires, killing people and hundreds of thousands of animals and destroying entire communities.
Smith pledged to donate $500 for every birdie and $1000 for every eagle he made in the tournament to relief efforts in conjunction with his fellow countrymen in the field. His uncle Warren had already lost his house and most of his farm and had been shipped from Tumbarumba – a country town not far from the nation’s capital Canberra – to Smith’s home in Brisbane. He and countless other Australian’s face a long road back and the fires continue to rage. Exhausted and facing multiple fires across the country, firefighters in Australia continue the battle.
Smith made 21 birdies over four rounds, none more important than the one at the 72nd hole, where he holed an eight-foot putt to set up a playoff with Brendan Steele who had taken a three-shot lead into the final round. One playoff hole later, Smith was the champion, earning his second PGA TOUR win but first as an individual.
“Every birdie putt I had, just meant that little bit more. Rather than kind of wanting to make it I almost felt like I had to make it,” Smith said after his victory. “I've always been quite good at not giving up. I've never felt the need to kind of mentally check out in any way. It was a big fight all week basically.”
His previous Tour win was at the 2017 Zurich Classic of New Orleans with teammate Jonas Blixt. This individual victory has been a long time coming, but is deserved and, in truth, comes as no surprise.
Last month, Smith came from three down after five holes in his singles match against Justin Thomas at the Presidents Cup to win on the 17th hole. Thomas was undefeated to that point. Under pressure, Smith rose to the occasion. When he holed the crucial putt that day, the Internationals still had hope, although would ultimately lose 16-14.
“Just having to make those putts, feeling like something else is on the line, I think I drew a little bit from the Presidents Cup,” Smith said. “I felt as though I played some of my best golf that week, and with such little time between these events I think that's kind of rolled over definitely into this week.”
His International teammate Marc Leishman, also a huge part of the fire relief efforts at the tournament, was not surprised by Smith’s victory. He partnered with Smith in the 2018 World Cup of Golf and watched the younger man take charge at crucial times as they finished in a tie for second place.
“Smithy is a fighter. He’s gritty. He won’t ever give up and everyone saw that first-hand this week,” Leishman said. “If you are looking for somebody to be with you in the trenches ,he’s your man. He’s grown up like that. It’s ingrained in him and his culture.”
Smith tried to put things into perspective. “I am here playing golf. Australia is doing it tough right now and the focus is probably not on my golf for good reason. But hopefully it gave a few people reason to smile for a moment or two,” he said. “Uncle Warren drove back to his place the other day and what he found was quite devastating. I kind of saw the photos and the only thing he had left was a little shed that him and his son built a few months back. We're a tight-knit family and it kind of hit everyone pretty hard. It's good to do something good, and hopefully puts a smile on their face.”
Smith moves to fifth in the FedExCup, secures his PGA Tour locks card for two more seasons and secures a place in the field for The Masters. He also has his sights set on representing Australia at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. “I definitely want to be there in Japan and want to wear the green and gold as much as I can,” he said.
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