ST ANDREWS, Scotland - “The goose-bumps are back,” Branden Grace admitted on the Old Course driving range on Wednesday ahead of Thursday's first round in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Not only is the 29-year-old South African in awe every time he returns to the "Home of Golf", but he also has sweet memories of having won this tournament back in 2012 when he shot a mind-blowing 12-under-par 60 in round one at Kingsbarns before cruising to victory over the Carnoustie and St Andrews courses.
“I’m still suffering from a bit of jet lag,” he revealed, having just flown in on Tuesday after playing in last week’s Presidents Cup in New Jersey, where he gained an admirable half with world No 1 Dustin Johnson in the last day singles against the victorious United States team.
“There was a lot of pressure in the Cup, but this week is more relaxing and my amateur partner (for the separate pro-am) is tournament host Johann Rupert and it’s always fun playing alongside him,” added Grace, in between hitting mid-iron shots into the distance on the practice tee.
In round one at St Andrews on Thursday, he and Rupert are paired with Rory McIlroy and his father Gerry, a fourball certain to command plenty of attention from the Scottish fans.
On the adjacent putting green 24-year-old compatriot Brandon Stone spoke of how he feels his game is getting back to peak form after missing eight cuts in 20 starts on the European Tour this season, although he did win the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek in December last year.
He’s already won twice on the European Tour - the 2016 South African Open at Glendower his other success - and was 31st in last week’s British Masters. And last year he topped the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit with R7million in prize-money and was selected for SA’s first Olympic golf team, so he’s definitely the genuine article.
“I really believe I’m ready to win again - it just needs that flip of a switch,” Stone declared. “I have been a bit surprised by the success I have had so early on in my professional career. But in a way I haven’t. I set very high standards for myself and for my potential."
Thomas Aiken, one of 17 South Africans in the Links line-up, spoke of the “amazing aura” one feels at St Andrews.
“You only get the same feeling at Augusta and Pebble Beach,” added Aiken whose wife Katie is expecting their first child in a fortnight’s time. “So I’m super excited.”
His golf has been a little erratic this year, with three top-five finishes on the European Tour but also some missed cuts. “I’ve also campaigned on both sides of the Atlantic this year, which maybe isn’t as good as concentrating on one tour so I’ll be sticking to Europe in 2018.”
Haydn Porteous, 23, is like Stone, another young South African looking for a good week following his maiden win on the European Tour, in the Czech Masters, five weeks ago. And that also goes for Dylan Frittelli who broke through for his first victory in Europe this season in the Lyoness Open.
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Richard Sterne was joint second here last year behind England’s Tyrrell Hatton and will be hoping to go one better this time, while George Coetzee is playing well these days following a weight loss and get-fit campaign. And then there’s Ernie Els, 12 days away from his 48th birthday. Is he past it? He certainly doesn’t think so, and perhaps the "Big Easy" will turn out to be the man to watch this week.