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Front Runner: Grace full steam ahead after Qatar Masters win

Grace gives the thumb up to signify his sixth victory on the European Tour following his one-shot victory at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

Grace gives the thumb up to after winning his sixth European Tour title at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

BRANDEN GRACE lived up to his reputation as a strong front-runner when the 26-year-old South African secured his sixth European Tour title at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters, which has set him up for a return to golf’s top table.

 

Interview & Portraits: Commercial Bank Qatar Masters

 

January 26, 2015: When the four players sharing the third-round lead at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters were asked to look ahead to the final day, three talked hopefully of winning. Branden Grace, on the other hand, expected to win.

 

Austria No. 1 Bernd Wiesberger, who was sixth in Abu Dhabi the previous week, experienced Scot Marc Warren and young Argentine Emiliano Grillo all talked of having a “chance” and “giving it my all”.

 

However, Grace only saw one person lifting the trophy on the final day – literally.

 

“After I woke up, I watched some of the previous videos of when I won, just to try to get me in the right frame of mind,” said the 26-year-old, who had shown a liking for the Doha Golf Club layout by finishing sixth in 2013 and 13th last year.

 

“It worked. It was a nice way to wake up.”

 

Grace’s confidence of closing out stemmed from owning or sharing the third-round lead in his five previous European Tour victories. A fresh-faced Grace closed out four times in his memorable rookie season in 2012, while at home in South Africa last month he rediscovered the winning feeling at the Alfred Dunhill Championship.

 

Although very comfortable as a front-runner, Grace did admit that the leaderboard at the start of the final round in Doha was more crowded than usual, with three others on 13-under.

 

“It was different this time, as there was four guys, so I just wanted to get out to a good start and I managed to make the birdie on one,” he said.

 

Playing with Wiesberger in the penultimate group, Grace followed up with 10 straight pars and at one stage shared the lead at 14-under with five other players. Still, he didn’t push the panic button.

 

Grace celebrated his win with his caddie Zack Rasego and girlfriend Nieke Coetzee.

Grace celebrated his win with his caddie Zack Rasego and girlfriend Nieke Coetzee.

After Wiesberger rode a hot putter after the turn, Grace birdied 12 and 14 to draw level with the Austrian on 16-under. Then, with the finish line drawing near, Grace put his foot on the gas by driving the green at the 295-yard, par-four 16th hole before nailing a six-foot eagle putt that put him in pole position.

 

“When Bernd made the birdies to go to 16-under, I thought he was definitely the one to catch, so it was like a little matchplay situation between the two of us. Then I got to 16 and went past him and that was the game changer,” said Grace, who was benefiting from the calming influence of Zack Rasego, Louis Oosthuizen’s former caddie.

 

“I’d actually been feeling good with the driver the whole day. It was one of those where it was not a big, big drive; just a smooth, solid swing. I just managed to hit it left of the pin, five or six feet short. Zack just told me, ‘Stick to your routines. You’re reading it well and putting it well.’ I made a good stroke and rolled it in.”

 

After a par on 17, Grace headed to the final hole two clear of Wiesberger before Warren started appearing in his rearview mirror. Playing in the last group, the Scot bagged birdies on 16 and 17 to join Grace at 18-under, although the South African was unaware of the new challenge until he approached the green on the par-five closing hole, where he was facing a six-foot birdie putt following a crisp sandwedge.

 

“I saw Marc hit it pretty close on 17 before we walked off to the tee, but I still wasn’t aware he made birdie. I thought we would have heard a little bit of a roar from behind us and we didn’t hear anything, so I thought he missed. Then I hit the shot to 18 and as I walked up [to the green], I saw he made birdie, so I told Zack, ‘We need this one’.

 

“As calm as Zack is, he said, ‘Listen, what happens, happens. You’ve played well, so just make a good stroke and see what happens.’ I told Zack, ‘I’m just going to trickle it down there and hopefully it just runs in.’ I managed to make a good stroke and get in the hole. It was one of those where I literally just had to touch the ball.”

 

Grace nailed the birdie that put him a shot ahead of Warren, then had to wait in the scorer’s tent and watch on television as his last remaining challenger missed a long birdie putt.

 

“It’s a big ask to make a long putt like that to force a playoff and in the end it was my week,” said Grace, who received a cheque for US$416,660. “I’m sure he’s going to have plenty more to come.”

 

Grace became the fourth South African to lift the Mother of Pearl Trophy, following Darren Fichardt (2003), Ernie Els (2005) and Retief Goosen (2007). However, it wasn’t his passport that earned him victory, but experience of handling the pressure of being in the lead and making the shots when they matter.

 

“I just find that you need to stick to your routines and I think that’s one of the things I’ve been doing well every time that I’ve led so far. I’ve stuck to my guns, stuck to the routines and hit the same shots almost every day that I’ve hit the whole tournament each time,” Grace said.

 

“I also have Zack on the bag, just keeping me calm and telling me to stick to my guns, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

 

Back-to-back wins in South Africa had kick-started his four-win rookie season, so after teeing off the current European Tour season – which began in December – with two early victories, Grace is hoping he’s on for another campaign to remember.

 

“It was difficult to get the first victory in 2012, just to break the barrier, yet once I had one under the belt, I then went on to win the following week, which was great,” said Grace, who had to deal with self-doubt after failing to win in the following two seasons.

 

“After the two‑year drought, it was tough to get back into the winner’s circle. You start thinking, when am I going to win again? How long is it going to take?”

 

After breaking his drought with victory at last month’s Alfred Dunhill Championship, Grace’s success in Doha vaulted him to third place on The European Tour’s Race to Dubai ranking.

 

“I really played well leading up to the Dunhill and then just played phenomenal golf that week. The field was good, so it was nice to know you could do it with those guys playing, same as in Qatar, where you had major champions. It was nice to be able to do it at these times where you need to do it,” he said.

 

“These are big tournaments now, so this is one of the wins that’s really putting me back on the map now. I think I’ll be in the top 50 or just outside. These are the things that we need as golfers to push us to the next level. It’s just nice that I could do it at a place like this and in a special way like this.”

 

Having started the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters as World No. 79, Grace is now focusing on the top 50 to ensure he earns starts in the Majors and WGC events, where he needs to prove himself to make the leap from one of the European Tour’s most exciting talents to a global name.

 

“I think the type of golf that I’m playing now, I think I can give it a push. Over the last couple of years, I struggled with putting a little bit and things like that. But after the work I’ve done, the stroke is feeling good,” Grace said.

 

“This week, I told myself it doesn’t matter what it looks like; stand over it, trust your line and just hit it without thinking about it, so that was great. If I can just keep that frame of mind going into the big events like the WGCs and the Majors, you never know. Some of those courses you play, they just suit your eye and you never know when it’s going to be your week.”

 

Actually, Grace often does know when it’s going to be his week, as before the final round he’ll be watching videos of his previous wins.

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