JOHANNESBURG - He hits the ball so darn straight, so darn low and so damn far that he’s going to win The Open one day. That’s how South Africa’s ‘Mr Golf’, Dale Hayes, sees compatriot Branden Grace’s future following the 29-year-old’s dazzling victory in the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City on Sunday.
And I have to agree, because Hayes was rightfully pointing out that the acclaimed British links courses which host The Open Championship each year favours the player who can do exactly that - smash it off the tee like a low-flying missile down the middle and out of sight. This not only helps to keep the ball under the oft-present wind and out of trouble, but also enables the player to exploit the hard-running turf so typical of links layouts.
There’s an old, well-known saying in golf that “You drive for show and putt for dough” and there is much truth in this as a tiny missed putt counts for exactly the same as a mighty drive. But Grace kind of turned this around on Sunday and was more just “Drive for Dough” in a brilliant, aggressive final round. His booming tee-shots laid the foundation for a six-under 66 which saw him come back from three off the lead held by playing partner Scott Jamieson at the start of play, and win by one from the Scot. And his power hitting did seem to intimidate Jamieson, as well as France’s third-placed Victor ‘D’Artagnan’ Dubuisson.
The long, straight drives had him executing his approach shots from so much closer to the greens than his rivals, helping him become the first winner on the European Tour in over three years to hit all 18 greens in regulation. That he missed three or four birdie putts on his three-under inward loop didn’t matter in the end. The terrific tee-shots had laid the platform for him to become the first South African in 10 years to win the Nedbank - Trevor Immelman being the last champion in 2007. And his enthralling “Driving for Dough” was key to him earning a hefty $1,25-million first place cheque.
What an awesome week!Words cant describe how this win means to me,winning an event like #NGC2017 in 🇿🇦 is extra special!! Thanks to everyone
I’ve been covering golf for over 40 years and I’m struggling to recall a more explosive back nine by a South African on a Sunday (Charl Schwartzel at the 2011 Masters?) with all the pressure on. At the 471-yard par-4 15th, for instance, Grace flew the fairway bunkers on the left with a mighty drive that left his second shot just 89 paces from the green, and he was able to find the putting surface with a lob wedge.
By contrast South Africa’s other ‘Mr Golf’, Denis Hutchinson, remembers how in the old days of the “Million Dollar” at Sun City in the early 1980s, Lee Trevino also hit the green in two at 15 but it was with a drive and a four-wood! Hutch, of course, will reason that clubs and balls made today allow players to hit the ball so much further.
But the fact remains that Grace’s talent, power and self-belief enables him to play some extraordinarily special golf - like winning the Alfred Dunhill Links in Scotland 2012 with an amazing first round 12-under-under 60. And this year he became the first player in the storied history of Major golf to shoot a 62 - in the final round of The Open at Royal Birkdale. And now that he’s won ‘Africa’s Major’ does, as Hayes suggests, a real Major await?