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Dublin: 4 °C Saturday 29 November, 2014

In the Swing: Grace epitomises rude health of South African golf

The country rivals Northern Ireland in its ability to produce top class golfers, writes Neil Cullen.

Grace is currently ranked 66 in the world.
Grace is currently ranked 66 in the world.

BRANDEN GRACE NOW has three European Tour titles, and it’s only April. Incredible stuff from the young South African who took home the Volvo China Open early on Sunday morning.

He now sits at 4th in the Race to Dubai and 66th in the world rankings. It’s been a dream start for him  in only his second full season on the European Tour.

South Africa has become a bit of a factory for highly talented golfers in recent years. Gary Player was the pioneer, as were Ernie Els and Retief Goosen in the modern era. In recent years, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have all won Majors.

On the European Tour this season, six of the 15 tournaments have been won by South Africans.

There’s been much talk in this part of the world about Northern Ireland being the greatest golfing nation in the world with Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke all winning Majors in the last few years, but surely South Africa rivals Northern Ireland for that coveted title, if not trumps it.

Will Branden Grace be the next South Africa to take home a Major championship? He’s only ever played in the British Open and missed the cut in two of his three appearances, but his form this year is greatly improved. A Major is probably too much to ask, but if he keeps on winning European Tour events the Majors will quickly become his focus.

A man for whom a Major definitely isn’t too much to ask and who also recorded a win at the weekend is Lee Westwood.

The world number 3 successfully defended the Indonesian Masters after having to play 32 holes on the final day because of weather delays.

It’s obviously nice to win, but with all due respect to the rest of the field, Westwood was by miles the best player out there and a win had to have been the only satisfactory outcome for him. Sure, you still have to get it done, but Westwood is a good enough player and has won enough times.

Whether a win like this helps him towards that breakthrough Major is questionable. A two-shot victory over Thaworn Wiratchant, who started the week at number 202 in the world rankings, is hardly what you’d consider groundbreaking. It’s a nice feeling to win, but when you have a Tiger Woods or a Rory McIlroy or a Luke Donald to contend with, it becomes a completely different story.

The Englishman heads back to the USA for the Wells Fargo Championship and The Player’s Championship in the coming weeks – those are the type of events where a win would really be a big boost for him.

The third winner of the weekend is a man who actually has won a Major, 2003 British Open winner Ben Curtis. He is one of these guys who is remembered as a bit of a one-hit wonder. The 2003 Open was indeed the first Major he had ever played in, but in fairness to him, his win at the Valero Texas Open on Sunday was actually his third victory on the PGA Tour since his Major triumph.

As well as that, he finished runner-up to Padraig Harrington in the 2008 PGA Championship as well as making the US Ryder Cup team in that year. In the Sunday singles matches in that Ryder Cup, he pulled off a 2&1 victory over Lee Westood to help the US team to their 16.5 to 11.5 victory.

Curtis is clearly a talented player but has had a very up and down career. In the middle of the aforementioned successes, he had some really barren years in 2004 and 2005 during which he only had three top-ten finishes in the two years.

Golf is one of those games, one minute you have, the next minute you can lose it, and then you can find it again. This weekend’s three winners all found it over the four days from Thursday to Sunday,  but their careers will almost certainly be defined, as are the careers of most, by Major championships. Grace will dream of winning one, Westwood will keep plugging away, and Curtis will be remembered, whether deservedly or not, as a one-hit wonder.

Read: Curtis breaks drought in Texas>

Read: Northern exposure: Wozzilroy swing in to add glamour to Ravenhill>

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