Philadelphia, PA – At this time last year, Branden Grace was winding down a winless yet productive Challenge Tour campaign and gearing up for another trek through European Tour Qualifying School.
Now, some 12 months later, the 24-year-old South African is putting the bow on a historic season -- one which featured four European Tour victories and a substantial leap in the Race to Dubai standings, as well as the buzz and notoriety associated with such a surprising run.
Grace, a product of the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation, turned pro in 2007 after an impressive amateur career which featured a 2006 South African Amateur Stroke Play Championship victory, among other titles.
After five top-10 Challenge Tour finishes in two years, Grace earned his 2009 European Tour card through Q School, but there his upward trajectory hit a plateau.
While he was burning it up on the lower-tiered tours -- seven top-10 finishes on his native Sunshine Tour in 2009, professional victory No. 1 at the Sunshine's Coca-Cola Charity Championship in 2010, impressive Order of Merit results for both the Challenge and Sunshine in 2011 -- Grace didn't manage to make a similar impact at the next level.
After failing to place higher than 148th in the Race to Dubai standings for three consecutive years, the young pro headed back to Q School in 2011. And while Grace once again earned his European Tour card with a strong showing at the annual qualifying tournament, few managed to predict what lay on the horizon: a manifestation of the Pretoria native's namesake; golfing grace unpredictable.
The run started early.
Grace's first win of the 2012 campaign came on home soil at the Joburg Open in January. His second win occurred just a week later, when he ousted Els and Retief Goosen in a playoff at the Volvo Golf Champions. After a brief lull, Grace secured his third victory of the season with a four-stroke triumph over Nicolas Colsaerts at the Volvo China Open in April.
"When I went to Q School I really thought I was going to get a card," Grace said prior to the PGA's Memorial Tournament in June. "I thought my game was in good shape for me to be able to finish up there.
"One of my goals was to win one of the first two events back home because it was in South Africa and I've really played well at those courses, but I never really expected to win the Joburg Open. Everything from there just happened really quick. I think just getting over that first hurdle of getting the win under (my) belt gave me loads of confidence to keep pushing on."
Grace not only pushed on, he vaulted himself into elite historical company with a wire-to-wire triumph at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in early October.
Coming off a win at the Vodacom Origins of Golf Tour Final on the Sunshine Tour a week prior, Grace fired a European Tour record-tying 60 at Scotland's Kingsbarns in the Dunhill Links' opening round and by that Sunday had entrenched himself as the tournament's youngest-ever winner.
With the victory, Grace became the first player in European Tour history to win his first four events in the same season. Additionally, he became the first player on the tour since Martin Kaymer in 2010 to win four events in the same season.
The Dunhill Links triumph came in Grace's 70th career tournament, making him the seventh quickest player to win his first four tour events, joining Tiger Woods (15 events), Seve Ballesteros (41), Sandy Lyle (47), Els and Sergio Garcia (58), Jose Maria Olazabal (66) and Kaymer (70).
Aside from rubbing elbows with prestigious historical company, Grace also has positioned himself favorably in the current golf landscape.
Despite a 43rd-place finish at last week's BMW Masters, the up-and-comer is fourth in the Race to Dubai standings behind world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, Peter Hanson and Justin Rose -- a far cry from last season's 179th-place finish -- and 38th in the World Golf Rankings.
Those numbers could move this week in Shenzhen, China, where Grace will aim for his fifth win of the season in the PGA/European Tour's WGC-HSBC Champions.
Regardless of this weekend's outcome, the young South African has graced us with a surprising season to remember. As the victories mount, so will the expectations, and inevitably, the upstart will be called upon to capture a major championship.
Grace has appeared in four majors during his young career, with his best finish coming at the Open Championship in 2009, when he tied for 43rd. This year, he tied for 77th at that event, tied for 51st at the U.S. Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
Still, given Grace's unprecedented ascent, a leap to major-winner status seems all but inevitable.