Springboard: Rising star Branden Grace using Macao Open as a stepping stone to the top
South African is hoping victory in October can help him in his quest to break into the top five of the world rankings
World number 13 Branden Grace is viewing October’s US$1.1 million Venetian Macao Open as a step on the path towards the very top echelons of the game.
The 28-year-old acknowledged there was still work to be done on his game when confirming he was the marquee signing for the Macau event on Wednesday.
Reigning Asian Tour number one Anirban Lahiri of India will also return, having won the title in 2014.
South African Grace has over the past 12 months shown he can mix it with golf’s big guns, backed up by four top-10 finishes in the past seven majors, a breakthrough title on the US PGA Tour and a seventh victory on the European Tour.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Grace. “Obviously I feel I am getting closer. I had my first top five in a major last year [at the US Open] and you sit back and think ‘Is it going to happen again?’ But then you get in that position again and you really feel what it takes to be at the top.
“If I keep playing the way I am I’m going to get in the top 10 and even the top five. It’s about trying to be consistent, to stay there. But it’s all relatively new to me and so I am learning.”
Grace finished fourth behind American Jimmy Walker at last month’s PGA Championship at the Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, and kick-started his debut season on the PGA Tour with a two-stroke win over Luke Donald and Russell Knox at the RBC Heritage in April.
That’s made it US$2.8 million in the bank from the American tour alone this year but Grace also successfully defended his Qatar Open title in January to keep the till ringing away nicely.
“It’s been a great year,” said Grace. “It’s been phenomenal. I’ve played some good golf and obviously getting my first victory [in the US] was very special.
“We’re heading into the Fed Ex Cup now, the game is still there so I’ll be looking to bring my form into Macau. I’m excited to see where my golf is going, and to see what I can do in the future. You get some guys who don’t like to travel but I think that’s what golf is all about.”
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Grace said he knows what it takes to win in Asia, having picked up the Volvo China Open in Tianjin in 2012, a year that saw the South African carve himself a slice of history by becoming the first ever player to win his first four European Tour events in the same year.
“It’s great to get out to Asia and see how the game is growing, how the fans get behind the local players,” said Grace. “I had a great time winning in China and just soaking up the atmosphere there and I expect I will see more of that in Macau.”
And Grace knows also what it might take to wrest the Macau crown off the head of Australian Scott Hend, who’s looking for a repeat victory next month – and to become the first player to win the event three times, having also won in 2013.
Hend’s hot form has continued through 2016, with two victories on the Asian Tour and with a second place behind Alex Noren of Sweden at the Omega European Masters in Switzerland on Sunday moving the 43-year-old into the lead in this season’s Order of Merit, with US$714,112 collected.
“I’ve played with Scott a couple of time and everybody knows he is a great player, and how far he hits the golf ball,” said Grace. “He plays some of his best golf on the Asian Tour. When he heads back there the form just comes out of him so obviously he’ll be a tough competitor [to beat].”
“I’ve watched the tournament a few times over the years,” said Grace. “One of my mentors Ernie Els has obviously been there numerous times and he’s told me when I get the chance I should go. I’m excited to see what it’s all about. It looks like the wind will blow on a few holes and that suits me. I’m really excited to see what it’s all about.”
Alongside Grace, Hend and Lahiri, the event has signed this year’s Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke, with the Ulsterman planning to arrive in town fresh from the battle against the Americans, set for Hazeltine at the end of the month.