SA's Grace set to win inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship
Four-time European title winner Branden Grace is the favourite to win the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship when the first event in the 2013 European Tour season tees off on Thursday in Durban.
The 24-year-old South African, who ended sixth at the World Tour Championship in Dubai two weeks ago, is an ambassador for the event named after the country's first black president, a Nobel Peace laureate and struggle icon.
"It's the first time that he has done something like this, putting his name to a golf tournament," said Grace. "What he has done for South Africa is amazing. He has turned things round and everyone looks up to him."
Mandela's children's fund is one of the beneficiaries of the event co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour at the 6115-metre Royal Durban Golf Club.
The 18-hole par-72 course is deceptively flat – no high trees were allowed in its design because it is in the middle of the Greyville Racecourse – but it has narrow fairways and punishing rough.
"Royal Durban is a great venue. I played this course a long time ago so I'm looking forward to going back," said Grace.
Who's expected to win?
Grace is the favourite to win the first event in the 2013 Race to Dubai after his explosive debut year on the European Tour. Countrymen George Coetzee and Bryce Easton are also home contenders.
Grace's friend Coetzee has won four Sunshine Tour titles, and came second behind Sweden's Henrik Stenson in the South African Open in November. The 26-year-old finished 21st in the Race to Dubai.
Easton (25) beat three others in a play-off to take the Sun City Challenge in May, and has played at the Royal Durban since he was a boy.
Englishman John Parry (26), fresh from his victory at the European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage last week, also travels to Africa hungry for more.
Norway's Espen Kofstad meanwhile wants to add to his winnings after clinching the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final in July.
"I'm really excited to get going and about what lies ahead this year," said the 25-year-old. "I cannot wait to test myself against the world's best players."
At nine trophies South African players won the most titles in a European Tour in 2012.
Organisers said 156 professionals would take part in the Nelson Mandela Championship when the one-million-Euro tournament was launched in August.
Mandela spent almost three decades in prison for his fight against the apartheid government. He became South Africa's first black president at the fall of the white regime in 1994 and is revered as an icon of peace and reconciliation around the world.
Proceeds from the golf tournament will go to his children's fund, dedicated to bettering the lives of underprivileged youngsters.
South Africa hosts six European Tour events in the 2013 season. - AFP