Counting on Grace
Harare – Branden Grace provided the silver lining on a weekend when a battery of elite South African golfers came short at the Masters.
Australia celebrated its first triumph at Augusta National and the storm triggered by Tiger Woods’ controversial drop cast a shadow on golf’s showcase event.
Grace, playing in his first Major, provided the ray of light in that cloud of gloom by getting the consolation prize of being the second-best among debuting golfers.
He finished tied on 18th for a US$116 000 cheque after hitting rounds of 78, 70, 71 and 69, that included an eagle on the second hole on day two.
He had appeared in danger of missing the cut after a horrible first round, but Grace battled his way for two-under par 70 on day two and described the feeling of playing at Augusta National as incredible.
“It was awesome. I wouldn't change it for anything. The place is exactly what you think it's going to be and more,” he told ASAP Sports.
“You know, last year, after I had my second win, I shot up the World Ranking and I thought, well, obviously you can't just set your goals on one specific thing, you still have to play and try to win, and that was the case.
“If you just play well, it takes care of the rest.”
For African followers of golf’s first Major, the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments played on the same course every year, the interest is usually linked to the fate of the South Africans who do battle against the world’s finest.
Two years ago the world watched in amazement as Charl Schwartzel birdied his final four holes to shoot a 66 and power his way to victory at Augusta National, overhauling favourite Rory Mcllory.
Northern Irishman Mcllroy had begun the final day leading by four shots but Schwartzel reeled him in with a relentless charge that saw him win by two shots.
Three years earlier, another South African golfer, Trevor Immelman, had risen from his hospital bed in Johannesburg – where doctors removed a tumor from his diaphragm – to sink a 20-foot putt in high-pressure conditions to ward off Woods’ challenge and win the Masters by three strokes.
Immelman became the first South African player since the legendary Gary Player in 1978 to win the green jacket and his triumph at Augusta National ended a 30-year wait for the Rainbow Nation to see one of its champion golfers coming out tops at the Masters.
His final round three over-par 75 tied Arnold Palmer’s 1962 score for the highest Sunday Masters’ score by a winner.
But that triumph just told half the story.
After all Immelman had missed the cut in his last PGA Tour event, as he struggled for focus after undergoing surgery.
It was Immelman’s first Major triumph and three years down the line, Schwartzel followed in his countryman’s footsteps as he also won the coveted green jacket, ironically, for his first Major title of his career.
Last year, South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen, double-eagled the second hole par 5 on the final day of the Masters to charge into the lead.
He fired his approach, using a four iron from about 231m, and the ball dropped on the front of the green, spun back about 25 metres, rolled to the right and then straight into the hole for only the fourth double eagle in Masters history.
It was also the first albatross on the par 5 second hole.
Oosthuizen forced a play-off with Bubba Watson, which the American won.
But if Africa was waiting for another sensational tale from Augusta National this year, then it was in for a disappointing four days as the South African charge never materialized.
Aussie golfer Adam Scott won his first Major, after another play-off, and the Woods’ controversy cast a spell on the tourney.
Scott, using the caddie who was on Woods’ side for 13 of his 14 major titles, appeared to have sealed his deal to make up for the heartbreak of his implosion at the British Open, where his collapse handed Ernie Els the claret jug, after his birdie on the 18th.
But former Masters’ champion, Angel Cabrera, playing in the final pairing, was not moved by the roar that erupted when Scott sank his birdie and fired an approach shot that landed close to the pin for a routine birdie that forced a play-off where the Aussie golfer triumphed.
But it’s a tournament that will be remembered more for providing Australia’s first winner as for the controversy that Woods’ misfortune touched and, to a large extent, played a part in defining this Masters.
Woods’ approach at the 15th was a good one, at a time when he had charged to take joint share of the lead on Friday, but the ball clipped the pin and somehow rolled back into the water of Rae’s Creek.
The world number one decided to take a drop shot, from where he had played his second shot, but a television viewer watching at home felt the drop contravened the rules because it was too far from where the original shot had been played.
The viewer alerted tournament officials, who felt no rules had been bent, but after Woods candidly talked about it in his post-round interview, the issue was revisited and the American was given a two-stroke penalty, and where he had been three strokes behind the leaders, he was now five.
That Woods was beaten by four strokes by Scott, in a tournament where one hole cost him a bogey and a two-stroke penalty, showed how defining that incident on the 15th on Friday was for this Masters.
For African viewers, there was very little cheer either and, for the first time in three years, South Africa didn’t provide a player in the top 10.
South Africa sent its top golfers into a tournament that athletes from the Rainbow Nation have won more times than any other country outside of the United States. But Els, Schwartzel, Immelman, Tim Clark, rising star Grace and Richard Sterne could not find the magic needed to win the green jacket this time around.
Clark was the best of the pick after going into the final round four shots off the leaders.
After a topsy-turvy first nine, in which he bogeyed the first, double bogeyed the fifth and bogeyed the seventh, he was never in the frame for a challenge although, to his credit, he fought gallantly on the back nine as he sank four birdies for a one-over 73.
He ended the tourney tied in 11th place, the best by any South African this year.
“I was disappointed with my round today,” Clark told Associated Press. “After shooting a 67 in the third round, I thought that I had a chance, but things simply did not go my way. That is the way it goes in golf.”
Four-time Major winner Els won the British Open last year, after Scott capitulated, but could only settle for 13th at this Masters.
He was not too perturbed though, saying: “I played nicely for once. Today I kept it a bit more together and I just enjoyed the day. I have not had a great year up to now and I have been working hard to get some momentum.
“I think, hopefully, we will get something going and I am looking forward to the rest of the year now.”
Schwartzel and Sterne finished tied on 25th while Immelman, who got his tournament going with a fine 68 on Thursday, finished with a two-over 74, in 50th place.