The eight-time European Tour winner Branden Grace, 30, returns this year to defend his title at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in the resort of Sun City, 125 miles north of Johannesburg. He talked about winning at home, hunting in the bush and how golf is more of a job these days than it used to be. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
You are defending the Nedbank title this year. Do you approach the tournament any differently?
I’m excited. This year is going to be a big one with a couple of big names, like Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy, which will give a big boost to the tournament. I’ve been successful at defending a title before, and I look forward to doing it again. I won the Qatar Masters in 2015 and 2016. It’s helpful to know what defending a tournament is about and how to handle that extra pressure. That helps you go into it with a bit more of a relaxed feeling. Normally, you do feel a bit more pressure the week before the rounds. As a defender, that week gets busier, which is sometimes nice because you have a lot more to do than during a normal week. You really keep busy.
There’s a lot, media obligations and visits and things like that. That takes your mind off the golf part of it. It’s a positive at the end of the week. You can easily get stuck up and stay in the room and just think about golf, golf, golf. But when you actually have some stuff to do and functions to attend, time flies by. Then it’s actually nice to be out on the golf course when the time comes.
Is it a relief to defend a title and get that monkey off your back?
Absolutely. It’s really important to get a variety of golf courses you have played well at and enjoy going back to. Sometimes, you get that one surprising win where maybe the course doesn’t suit you but your game that week is so good that you won it. Qatar was one of those places. It’s one of those places I really love playing and visiting. The winds blow a bit out there. It really plays into the style of golf that I play. The Nedbank challenge at Sun City is quite similar.
What’s your most memorable tournament experience?
That’s a tough question. Different tournaments stand out for different reasons, good and bad. I would say getting a win playing in America on the PGA Tour was one, just to get one over the line. Growing up, the PGA Tour was the one to play at and where you wanted to be. You play with the best players in the world week in and week out. You make a win out there, then you are pretty good at golf. For me that was a big step in my career. My best major was pretty big, too. Even though you haven’t won it, you still have got yourself a challenge coming down the stretch on Sunday and maybe your first major victory. For me that was the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015. I played really well, but Jordan Spieth won. And even though I didn’t win, I had knew I had what it takes to win a major.
Winning the Nedbank last year was another. South African fans got behind me all the way. It had been 10 years since a South African golfer had won and nobody had come close. When I won, I relived those moments of watching Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman winning the tournament. So, when you get the chance to do that it’s pretty special. Just walking up the 18th hole up past the grandstand and you hear the applause the way I did last year was one of those moments you never forget in your life.
The former pro Gary Player hosts the event. Has he given you any pointers for on or off the golf course?
I know Gary pretty well. We’ve spent a lot of time together. When you spend a lot of time with Gary you see the way that he does things. You realize he treats people the right way, the way he treats other players, sponsors and guests. You kind of realize that this is what it’s all about. The way he does it is the way it should be done. I just see him do things and learn from example.
Is there any trick to playing the Sun City course at Nedbank?
I like the clingy grass. It’s the grass we grew up playing on. A lot of golfers from Europe or America have a hard time with it and aren’t very keen on it. They find it a little bit tricky and sticky, and thick at times. For us growing up, we had to get used to it. Also, there in Sun City with being so high up in altitude and the heat, the ball goes forever. You can hit a 7-iron 200 yards without even thinking about it. Some guys don’t even play with a driver. You have to be accurate and keep it on the short stuff and aggressive when you should be off the tee.
You’re a hunter. Does that help you as a golfer in any way?
I’m a good shot, but I’m not a great shot. I mainly hunt kudu, impala and springbok. I don’t hunt big game — that’s a whole different level. It’s more of a family thing. We get out in the bush and we have a laugh. Being a South African, we don’t waste anything. Whatever we shoot, we keep and eat the meat or use it for jerky. Where we hunt is so big, and sometimes it’s a day before you see something. There’s a lot of patience involved. It’s a whole different kind of experience, though. I definitely feel more comfortable hitting a golf shot than shooting something. But just being in the bush when it’s quiet, you can sit there and look at the place and really enjoy it. It’s something completely different from what we do as golfers. We get into doing this thing over and over and over again. It’s a break from that.
We are at the business end of the European Tour. What do you have to do for a strong finish?
It’s been a tricky year for me, with the birth of my son and an injury. The middle part of the year wasn’t that busy. This is time of the year now where I really have to push and finish great, get the world ranking points up and maybe win one or two events. It’s nice to come back home and play. When you are away all year, it gets tough and lonely. And you also feel like you have a better chance. I just need to pump myself up and finish strong.
You’ve been at this a number of years. Does anything surprise or mystify you about the game?
I think it’s become more like a job than when I started. In the beginning it was all fun. You go and mess around and play golf and go home. It was a fun thing to do. Things have really changed over the years from being more relaxed and enjoyable to being more about business. Now, playing on the PGA Tour or European Tour, you have to do just a little bit extra just to be out there and stay out there and give yourself a chance to win. The guys are getting younger and better. I’m only 30, but I feel like one of the old guys now. You kind of have to step it up just to give yourself a chance.