• Grace leads Saffa charge at Sun City

    Branden Grace
    Grace was SA's best on Thursday

    Local fans were treated to an exhibition of golf, with Branden Grace finishing strong on Thursday as the European Tour’s best teed off at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, writes WADE PRETORIUS.

    It has been ten long years since a South African walked away with the millions on offer at Africa’s Major, but on Thursday the country’s best gave fans something to cheer about in hot, slightly breezy conditions at the Gary Player Country Club.

    It began with the nation’s top-ranked player, Louis Oosthuizen, on the second hole, where the bearded 30-something casually converted his eagle attempt to steal a march on the field. And while Oosthuizen is not in contention for the Race to Dubai – he has given up his European Tour membership – he remains as determined as ever to get another local name on the trophy.

    A birdie at the sixth and 10th moved him to within one of early leader Victor Dubuisson. As Oosthuizen began to struggle – two bogeys in three holes from the 11th, and then a par at the 14th – compatriots Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace moved swiftly into contention.

    Grace’s opening 68 was particularly impressive when you consider his start, where he found himself two-over-par after four holes and battling a cold putter.

    A seven-time European Tour winner, many of those coming in co-sanctioned events, he bounced back by playing the next six holes in two-under-par before making his move. Grace birdied 13, eagled 14 and birdied 15 to get into a share of the lead, and despite missing some solid chances to move clear late on, he was very happy with his start to the penultimate Rolex Series event.

    ‘Anytime you shoot under par on this course, you’re happy,’ Grace said.

    “Even from the beginning, I didn’t do anything wrong.

    ‘Putter was cold. Three-putted the second, which was costly. Then made a decent bogey on three and three-putted the fourth, so the putter was really cold. Gave myself some good chances and managed to make one on seven, the par three, which is a real bonus, tough little hole.

    ‘Managed to make a few putts, kept hitting the ball great and giving myself chances. It’s nice to be able to play in South Africa, firstly. It’s my first start here this year. I want to make the most out of that one.’

    Schwartzel took an age to get going, with eight straight pars to start. The 2011 Masters champion moved into red figures with a birdie four at the ninth. The 33-year-old’s game is starting to take shape, and his iron play in particular was impressive as he set up and converted chances at both of the back nine par 3s, the second moving Schwartzel into the bunch at the top.

    A booming drive on 15, perhaps in anger after the par at 14, helped Oosthuizen get to within one of the lead after sinking a long-range putt after an indifferent pitch into the green. A drop followed at the par-3 16th after he failed to save from the sand, and the 2010 Open champion compounded his mistake with another bogey at 17 and scrambled for a par on the last. He made a 71 after a curious wedge into the green following another powerful strike from the tee.

    Schwartzel, meanwhile, signed for a 69 after he finished with his only bogey of the day. He looked set to stay in the leading group, despite being bunkered off the tee after showing a wonderful touch to set up what appeared to be a regulation par attempt. Instead, his putt stayed out, to the dismay of the gallery.

    Joining Schwartzel in the group at -3 was defending champion Alex Noren.

    England’s Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood struggled to hit greens in regulation all day and finished one-over-par to sit six shots behind leader Bernd Wiesberger. The Austrian made six birdies on his back nine – including one at the 18th – to move into the outright lead ahead of Grace, Julian Suri, Scott Jamieson and Victor Dubuisson.

    Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

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