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GOLF

Grace back in winners’ circle as Schaper impresses at SA Open

Grace back in winners’ circle as Schaper impresses at SA Open
Branden Grace of South Africa celebrates after winning the tournament during Day Four of the South African Open at Randpark Golf Club on January 12, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Getty Images / Warren Little)

Branden Grace had fallen so far from the top of the European Tour’s elite players it seemed he might never make it back. Until he did at the SA Open at Randpark Golf Club last Sunday.

Dozens of talented players emerged over the past two years while Branden Grace was in a slump, but the one-time major contender reminded the world of his talent at the SA Open over the past weekend.

The 31-year-old Grace is not old in golfing terms. There was a time when players only reached their potential in their thirties. Tiger Woods changed that by winning 10 majors before his 30th birthday.

Rory McIlroy, now 30, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka confirmed it by winning a combined 11 majors in their 20s. But golf, like other sports, is becoming a younger man’s game.

Grace, now a father, showed that he is far from done despite the rise of a new wave of fearless ball strikers, which includes South African amateur Jayden Schaper. The 18-year-old Schaper won the Freddie Tait Cup for the low amateur at the SA Open playing with the type of power and composure associated with much older players.

Jayden Trey Schaper of South Africa plays his second shot on the 12th during Day Four of the South African Open at Randpark Golf Club on January 12, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Getty Images / Warren Little)

In front of massive galleries on Sunday, Grace’s putter was white-hot as he carded a final round 62 for a 21-under-par total to overhaul defending champion and tournament favourite Louis Oosthuizen.

Grace only needed 22 putts on a day when the hole must have felt as big as bucket with putts dropping from everywhere.

It was a welcome return to form, winning his first title in over two years and confirming the old adage that form is temporary, class is permanent.

Grace finished 113th on last season’s Race to Dubai (The European Tour’s Order of Merit) after being in the top ten for four of the previous seven seasons.

There were signs last December that had turned the corner, tying for third at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek. He confirmed that it was not a one-off but a genuine comeback with his heroics at Randpark for his ninth European Tour win.

“That was remarkable,” Grace 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.”

By winning the SA Open Grace has won every significant title there is to win in South African golf, which includes the Alfred Dunhill Championship, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the Dimension Data Pro-Am.

A year of difficulty and change, which included his father’s ill-health and learning to balance fatherhood with a golfing schedule, appears to be behind him as he looked to 2020 with new confidence.

“You know, my dad had a heart-attack a year back, then we were building a house, I became a father, so there was a lot going on,” Grace said.

“But I’ve made some changes in management, I’ve got a new caddie and I feel in a really good place at the moment, and this was the place to kick it off.”

Grace started the final round three-shots behind third round leader Oosthuizen and promptly made a bogey on the second to put himself further on the back foot.

“I needed to come out hot. I knew I needed a low one,” Grace said. “I saw the conditions were good for it and the golf course was set up for it. I also knew Louis doesn’t make mistakes out there, so I knew it would be tough.

“The bogey wasn’t great to start, but when I made birdie on three and eagle on four I knew I was right back in it. And then the blade was just hot. The hole just looked bigger and bigger from there on.”

Despite Oosthuizen’s efforts, which included a hole-in-one on the par-three eighth, he was unable to keep pace with Grace on his way to a respectable round of 68. Grace was correct in that Oosthuizen didn’t make any mistakes and incredibly only had one bogey throughout the tournament. But Grace carded 23 birdies and an eagle against four bogeys over the 72 holes.

With Oosthuizen in good form, and Grace looking to be back to his best, there is reason for optimism at this year’s majors as well as the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Oosthuizen confirmed he would play in Tokyo if selected. In 2016, when golf made its debut at the Olympics in Rio, several high profile stars stayed away, including Oosthuizen. But the success of that event has changed mindsets among golf’s elite.

“It (Tokyo 2020) is definitely in my plans for this year,” Oosthuizen told media during the SA Open. “If I’m picked it’s definite that I’ll be going. It’s going to be a bit difficult scheduling-wise, the Games being staged between The Open and the FedEx (the season finale on the US PGA Tour), but this is the one event I want to go to and say I played in the Olympics.”

Tokyo will have a 60 player field and given Oosthuizen’s world ranking (currently 20) and the selection criteria, he is a realistic medal candidate, which is a condition for selection by the South African Sports and Olympic Committee (SASCOC).

Amateur star

Schaper won’t have designs on being at the Olympics just yet, but his performance at Randpark was among the best-ever by an amateur at the event and underlined his sparkling talent.

Schaper ended the week at 13-under par and in a tie for fourth. He was the best-placed amateur in the field this century becoming the first unpaid player to finish in the top five at the SA Open since Ernie Els in 1989.

Els, now 50, placed fourth at Glendower that year and went on to win four majors and over 70 tournaments.

It’s a huge privilege to be mentioned in the same breath as Ernie,” Schaper said after his final round. “He is a four-time major winner. That’s a pretty big name. Ernie is someone I’ve looked up to because he has been one of the most consistent golfers to play the game. It’s pretty cool to see my name up there with his and other names like that. It was a special week, and one that I’ll never forget.”

Schaper is the only golfer in history to record the ‘Grand Slam’ of South African Junior National titles – the Nomads SA Boys U13, U15, U17 and U19 titles. He also clinched the elusive SA U19 double when he lifted the strokeplay and matchplay titles at the age of 16.

In March last year, he shot a course record 62 en route to winning the SA Strokeplay Championship at De Zalze Golf Club and became the first South African winner of the prestigious Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in 2019.

“I like achieving records,” Schaper said. “Now that I’ve won the Freddie Tait Cup, winning the SA Amateur at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington next month is high on my bucket list. It’s the only one left before I will look at joining the pro ranks. I’ll be gunning for in the future and it will be so much more special because of the memories created this week.” DM

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