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New European season tees off just 11 days after Rory underlined 2012 dominance in Dubai

Branden Grace didn't have the year Rory McIlroy did. He'll probably take a repeat of 2012 just the same.

The South African got his card back before last season, won four titles and finished sixth on the 2012 money list.

Just 11 days after McIlroy ended 2012 with five straight birdies and the World Tour Championship title to cap a dominant year, the Race to Dubai begins Thursday with the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship, the first of six events in South Africa.

While the season-opener in Durban doesn't have the big names of Dubai, the 24-year-old Grace is eager to repeat a season with $3 million in earnings, which qualified him for all four majors in 2013.

"I got a lot of credit for what I did last year, but with that comes pressure and responsibility," Grace said. "This year I will be more focused on the majors. It's starting all over again, same as this year — getting the first win and moving from there."

Grace's breakthrough came at home at the 2012 Joburg Open. He went on to claim titles at the Volvo Golf Champions — which will again be in South Africa next month — the China Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

Grace and George Coetzee, also from South Africa, are the leading contenders for the new European Tour opener at Royal Durban this week among a bunch of qualifying school and Challenge Tour graduates.

But that never guarantees success.

"Whether you're the favorite or the underdog, I think I've proved this year that anything can happen," Grace said.

The Nelson Mandela Championship is the start a jackpot year for South Africa on the European Tour. The country will host six tournaments in the Race — the most ever — with the addition of the Nelson Mandela, the Tshwane Open and the retention of the Volvo Golf Champions.

The Tour starts with three straight in South Africa.

South Africa will introduce the $8.5 million Tournament of Hope at the end of 2013, the second-richest tournament in golf alongside the four WGC events and just behind the Players Championship.

The Tournament of Hope is not a European Tour event, but it will give South Africa back-to-back big-money events alongside its European Tour schedule if the Nedbank Golf Challenge invitational at Sun City stays in its regular slot.