Defending Nedbank Golf Challenge champion Branden Grace may trail overnight leader Sergio Garcia by six strokes but he’s taking it all in his stride, writes WADE PRETORIUS at Sun City.
Grace, playing in the marquee group alongside Rory McIlory and Haotong Li, shares 11th place with Kiwi Ryan Fox after an opening 70 on a day when Garcia reduced the Gary Player Country Club to his own personal playground.
For the defending champion, today was about relishing the honour of his achievement last year while working his way into contention.
A slow start – four pars and a bogey on the 5th – left the 30-year-old off the pace but he responded in true Grace style with gains at the 6th and two in a row to start his back nine.
‘For me today, it was all about enjoying it,’ he said after the round. ‘My wide told me to go out and have fun. To talk around the 9th and see my name among all the greats, that was really special. It was good start, you know, to get my defence off to a solid start.’
For all his experience, he admitted that arriving on the first tee was a unique experience.
‘Obviously there were a lot of nerves out there on the first tee. Not bad nerves, good nerves. It was great to be announced on the first tee as the defending champion.
‘I’ve been playing some decent golf leading up to this event and it was really a case of making that one putt early on to get things going. And then taking it from there.’
Grace praised Garcia’s ball striking and is eyeing some expedited progress over the next two days even if the course did show some of its toughness in round one.
‘It was a good start, maybe one or two iffy shots. But that’s what can happen around here because this place can really eat you up. The wind swirls and you have to take your chances but that’s not always easy because the greens are slick and have the slopes in them. It’s the quickest I’ve seen them and they can get away from you. Avoiding a five or six-footer for par is key.
‘This place doesn’t give you a moment to a breathe really because of how demanding it is,’ he added.
A bogey on the 14th could’ve spiralled but again he put his experience to good use in correctly working the rules to avoid excess punishment.
Grace knows the challenge of what lies ahead and what it takes to put himself into a good position come Sunday afternoon.
‘The tough thing about this golf course is to follow it up with a second really good score. This course will bite you if you get tentative.
‘I’ll be looking to go lower over the next few days and with a bit of luck, like last year, you know how things can go.’