South African golfer Branden Grace made a massive impact in 2012, winning four times in his first season on the European Tour. Now, in 2013, he gets to make his first title defence in the Volvo Golf Champions, teeing off at Durban Country Club on Thursday.
The elite event, co-santioned by the Sunshine and European Tours, brings together previous Volvo Golf Champions winners, winners from the previous season's European Tour, as well as players aged under 50 who have won 10 or more Tour titles in their careers.
Last year, Grace qualified for the event just the week before it took place by winning the Joburg Open. He went on to win the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt in the Western Cape and later added the Volvo China Open and Alfred Dunhill Links Championship titles. In addition, he also won the Sunshine Tour's Vodacom Origins of Golf Final.
'Another first for me'
Now ranked 34th in the world, Grace began 2012 in 265th place! Matching his performances of last year would take some doing, but the 24-year-old didn't sound too concerned when he told the European Tour's website: "I've never defended a title before, so it's another first for me.
"I know there's going to be a lot of hype around the event when I get there, but that's just one of those things I will have to deal with and I'm sure I'll enjoy it.
"I know for a fact that I'm a better player than I used to be, so I'm up for the test of trying to defend my title. It's going to be a new experience for me, so we'll see how I cope with it and hopefully I can come away with another win to start the year in style."
Looking back on the past year, he added: "Winning the tournament last year was absolutely awesome. After my victory at Joburg, I got the opportunity to play, so I knew my game was in good health and I always thought I'd be a tough man to beat at Fancourt, which is where I grew up playing the game.
"Everything worked my way, a little bit of local knowledge kicked in and the way it finished made the week even better. I never would have dreamed of beating Ernie [Els] and Retief [Goosen] in a play-off, so managing to do that was the cherry on top."
Back from injury
Goosen will be back to challenge for the title after spending five months on the sidelines following back surgery.
He said in an interview with the European Tour that he had returned to playing a month-and-a-half before he had hoped to be able to play again, and his back has been fine. It was a late decision to play in Durban, but the two-time European Tour Order of Merit winner, although he has no idea what to expect of his form, is optimistic.
"I'm very excited about the new year," Goosen said. "Hopefully the back will stay as good as it feels now. I just need to really work on my swing a little bit and find a bit of game."
South African entries
Ernie Els, Darren Fichardt, Jbe Kruger, and Louis Oosthuizen will also be part of the 32-man field. At number six in the world, Oosthuizen is the highest ranked golfer entered.
The Volvo Golf Champions is the third event on the 2012/13 European Tour, and the third of a record six South Africans events on the Tour.
Previously, in December, Scott Jamieson won the rain-hit Nelson Mandela Championship at the Royal Durban Golf Club and South Africa's Charl Schwartzel romped to victory in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.