'Awesome' Grace ready to step up
First impressions stick and Branden Grace could not have made a better one at the start of the 2012 season.
While Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are likely to be this year's dominant personalities it is also worth noting the less heralded figures, like Grace, who prove that professional golf is the ultimate sporting meritocracy.
The South African was rightly voted the European Tour's Golfer of the Month for January after his back-to-back victories in the Johannesburg Open and the Volvo Champions event on the Links at Fancourt.
Those wins now have the 23-year-old rubbing shoulders with McIlroy and co and after completing his first spell of golf in the Middle East, Grace is now preparing to head to America to explore yet more uncharted golfing territory.
South African-born Branden Grace, who took part in the Dubai Classic at the weekend, has had a brilliant start to 2012 by winning back-to-back titles: Photo: Getty
When we met to discuss his extraordinary start to the new season it quickly became apparent that Grace is no misnomer.
Polite, engaging and bubbling with enthusiasm, he positively relishes the attention he has generated for himself.
"Positive" is a recurring word in our conversation. So is "awesome", but there is no sign that he is awestruck at the prospect of mixing it with the game's big boys.
Grace feels now is the time for him to step up, especially with two Tour victories behind him.
Not bad for the man who claimed the 11th card available at Qualifying School at the end of last year. It was the second time he had made it through.
"If you told me at Q School that this is what would have happened so quickly I would have given you a smack and told you to wake up," Grace said.
"It's been awesome and still hasn't sunk in. There are no words to describe it."
The last time he was eligible to play on Tour he lacked the discipline and maturity to make the most of the opportunity.
"I've grown as a person and as a player a lot," he admitted. "Mentally and physically I'm a lot stronger."
Now there is a strategy in place. There are new routines on the course and repeated messages scribbled in his yardage books.
"They are there to keep myself refreshed and keep me motivated and going," he added.
The ploy certainly worked in Johannesburg where the 2006 South African Amateur Strokeplay Champion edged out Jamie Elson by a single stroke to claim his maiden Tour title.
"The win opened that door for Volvo," Grace said of the competition the following week which is essentially a tournament exclusive to European Tour champions.
"I was lucky enough it was at home and I felt really confident and positive going into the week."
Grace is a graduate of the Ernie Els Fancourt Foundation. How appropriate that it was at the same venue that he should come up against the organisation's founder in a play-off that included another home great in Retief Goosen.
"Ernie and Retief were South African golf when I was growing up," Grace acknowledged, but he also points to the heritage stretching further back.
"Gary Player's been a big inspiration. I read his book, Don't Choke, and that was really helpful. He sent me a tweet to say congratulations after my wins and that was awesome."
But it's the current crop of South African elite talent that most inspires Grace at the moment.
"Louis is a good mate and we spend a lot of time together," he continued.
"Knowing he has done it gives you a positive vibe and the feeling that you can do it. Now I have the feeling that I can be on the same level as they are.
"I can win and I can win on the big stage, which is a nice feeling to have."
Those two January victories have paved the way for him to play the WGC event at Doral next month and he will seek more PGA Tour starts. "I'm really excited to be playing in the States," he smiled.
But more importantly the exemptions earned with his victories enable Grace to plot his own course.
"I've never had a proper schedule, not even on the Challenge Tour," he said.
"It's nice to know the immediate future is settled and the pressure is off. Not that I want to ease off.
"It's been a great start to 2012, as good as anyone - a Luke or a Rory - could have asked for and I hope it doesn't stop there."
And with that, Grace thanked me for taking the time to talk to him. Usually it's the other way round with pro golfers.
Another fine first impression from a player we may hear of a lot more in the coming months and years.