Brandon Stone, the 2016 champion, and 2014 winner Branden Grace are both on the comeback trail as the 2020 European Tour season starts with the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek on Thursday, and both South Africans are entirely comfortable on the course as former winners, even though the grass has changed since their respective triumphs.
Stone finished tied-15th in last year’s tournament, ending 2018 ranked 106th in the world; he is currently ranked 175th after a frustrating year in which he seemingly concentrated more on his physical fitness and lost his swing a bit.
Grace was inside the top-50 in the world rankings this time last year, but has dropped to 126th after a difficult year in which he felt he put too much pressure on himself. This week Grace says he is playing for fun at a venue that he loves, alongside the southern border of the Kruger National Park.
“Golf is a quest for perfection that is never attained but I was just trying to get better,” Stone said at Leopard Creek on Wednesday. “I re-evaluated after 2018 and felt that physically I wasn’t where I needed to be. I needed to get stronger and fitter in order to compete with the best guys in the world. I feel as if my trainer and I have got me to a nice benchmark now where we can focus entirely on golf.
“The emphasis is now more on scoring and it’s starting to pay dividends. My game feels good, I feel at ease, I feel at home here and I’m hoping to get the 2020 season off to a flyer. It seems like every hole I stand on, I just love the tee shot and love the way it sets up. It almost feels like Mr Rupert built this course for me. I feel that extra level of good ‘ju-ju’ because I’ve had success here before,” Stone said.
“It’s been a tough year,” Grace admitted. “But there have been a lot of things I’ve learned and it feels like my game is coming on. I think that I’ve been trying so hard that I’m putting more pressure on myself, which is unnecessary. So now it’s just about enjoying myself, it’s always nice to come back to South Africa and just enjoy things a bit again. This year it became more of a job.
“But I’m excited and when I come back here, it’s to a place where I’ve won before, so I’m familiar with it and there are great feelings, great views and, in taking everything in, you realise it’s not just about the golf. So this week is about coming here – it’s awesome to be back – and enjoying it and taking the most out of what South Africa has got to offer,” Grace said.
England’s Eddie Pepperell, the world number 47, is the top player in the field and will be looking to rebound from his last outing, when he was disqualified from the Turkish Airlines Open for running out of balls after some unhappy water-trouble, bombing him out of the European Tour’s finals series.
But South Africans have won on nine of the 14 occasions the Alfred Dunhill Championship has been staged at Leopard Creek and the vast majority of the country’s top golfers, including other former champions in Charl Schwartzel, Garth Mulroy, Richard Sterne and Ernie Els, will be teeing it up in Malelane.