EAST LONDON, South Africa (AP) — Branden Grace holed a 9-iron approach at the 18th hole to get within a shot of Brandon Pieters for the Africa Open lead after Thursday’s partially completed first round.
Grace’s eagle lifted him to 6-under 67, with Pieters’ early 66 holding up when play was halted with 24 players still on the course in gathering darkness at East London Golf Club. A dense coastal fog in the morning had caused an 1 1/2-hour delay at the European Tour event.
“I was just trying to hit it close,” Grace said.
It was an exclamation point to a round that opened with a birdie but faltered with a bogey on the fourth.
“I was a bit nervous about what that might have done to my day,” he said. “But the turning point came when I sank a good 15-footer for birdie on the 10th, and that was the first of three in a row for me.”
He bogeyed the 14th – a hole players battled all day – but birdied the 16th and then came the moment of magic on the 18th.
He shared second with the fellow South African Jaco van Zyl, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet of France, Fredrik Ohlsson of Sweden, Elliot Saltman of Scotland and Miles Tunnicliff of England.
Pieters, also of South Africa, was a surprise leader in the clubhouse. He’d injured his knee on his way back from European Tour Q-School then aggravated it when he slipped on an embankment during the South African Open just before Christmas.
“I just did nothing for two weeks, resting my knee after the SA Open, and I felt really rusty on the range,” he said.
But after the turn Pieters made five birdies beginning at No. 3.
“It was a case of making more putts in that stretch than I made all of last year,” he joked.
Had he not had three bogeys in the first 10 holes, he might have had a runaway lead.
“The bogeys were just from bad tee shots,” Pieters said. “The rough’s up, and I just hit three bad tee shots which resulted in bogeys.”
Defending champion Charl Schwartzel was 4-under 33 going out and a birdie on 11 seemed to set him for a superb round, but he had bogeys 13, 14 and 18. The damage was compensated somewhat by an eagle on No. 15, finishing with a 69 to tie for 14th with 10 other players.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen labored to a 75, while Darren Clarke, who was second to Goosen in 2009, had a 69.