Grace has won twice on the European Tour this season, taking his career tally of titles to six, and came within one bad tee-shot of winning the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay last month. There is no doubt the talented 27-year-old has lifted his game to a new level, as proven by him breaking into the top-30 on the world rankings.
“Branden would have already won a major were it not for one bad decision – changing from three-wood to driver on the 16th at Chambers Bay – but he’s going to be one of the best contenders this weekend in the Open at St Andrews.
“The improvement in his game has been because he’s had Ernie Els as a great mentor. It’s important to have mentors as a golfer – I had Hugh Baiocchi and John Bland – and Branden has Ernie and Retief Goosen and he’s learnt a lot from them. Plus Sherylle Calder, the eye doctor, has helped him a lot with his putting.
“When you get to the top level, golf is mostly mental, even though technique is still important. Branden would have learnt a lot from others like Ernie about course management, strategy and what it takes to win a major,” Levenson told The Citizen at a Laureus Sport for Good Foundation breakfast hosted by new country patrons Mercedes-Benz in Bedfordview on Thursday.
World number 29 Grace finished the first round at St Andrews on Thursday on three-under-par, inside the top-20 and four strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson.
It was a great day for South Africans in general, with veteran Goosen in a tie for second after a brilliant 66 and Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen both posting 67s, the same score as Jordan Spieth. Els shot a one-under 71.
Both Grace and Oosthuizen can call on happy memories at the home of golf as they stake a claim on the oldest title in the sport.
Oosthuizen won the Open the last time it was staged at St Andrews, claiming a runaway seven-stroke victory over Lee Westwood in 2010.
“Louis is no stranger to links golf coming from Mossel Bay, where it’s pretty windy. He’s a good links golfer and I wasn’t surprised when he won the Open in 2010. He will be a contender again this weekend, one of the favourites and South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer [17th].
“But Branden won the Dunhill Championship there and is also one of the best links golfers around. It definitely matters that Zack Rasego is on his bag again, as he was with Louis in 2010. That kind of knowledge of the course can save you four or five shots and who knows how important that will be for Branden? Plus Zack was with him when he won the Dunhill … ” Levenson pointed out.
While Goosen continues to shine on his comeback from back surgery, Levenson said he doubted whether the 46-year-old’s body would be able to stand up to the rigours of four days of high-pressure golf, but he felt Els was still there or thereabouts, while Schwartzel just needed to hole a few putts.
Two-time major winner Sally Little, South Africa’s greatest women’s golfer, said although she believed young Spieth could handle all the pressure on his shoulders, she felt it might be worth having some money on George Coetzee as an outsider to win the Open, while Oosthuizen could also not be discounted.
“Jordan Spieth is a 21-year-old young boy carrying such a weight on his shoulders, but he’s handling it so well. He has the mind and presence of a 40-year-old and that comes from the base he has at home, and maybe because he has a special needs sister that he dotes on.
“But I also favour the South Africans, especially in those conditions. I would love Louis Oosthuizen to win. He hasn’t been performing to his capabilities over the last few years, he’s been injured but not anymore. He’s also one of the most relaxed golfers, I don’t think he feels pressure, he’s just thinking about tractors!
“But he has one of the best swings and rhythm that I’ve seen and that really helps in that sort of weather. A win at St Andrews is the cream for any player, it’s very special, and he has a tremendous advantage having won there before. But George Coetzee is a dangerous sleeper and Charl Schwartzel also has the most wonderful swing,” Little said.
The first round of the Open was played in fairly benign conditions with Spieth picking up five birdies on the front nine, before coming home in par.
But by Saturday the wind is expected to be up and St Andrews should be at its brutal best.
“You always get some strange names at the top of the leaderboard in the beginning, but there was obviously no weather today. It’s all about the players that survive once the wind comes back,” Levenson, who played in six Open Championships, finishing tied-36th at St Andrews in 1984, said.