SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND – The inevitable arrived mid-afternoon Saturday at Royal Birkdale in the form of Branden Grace.
In the third round of the 442nd major championship, Grace became the first player to shoot 62 and that was remarkable for any number of reasons, not the least of which is Grace was unaware until after holing his final putt that he had gone where no man had gone before.
It seemed as if the whole world knew what was happening, but Grace was almost embarrassed to admit he didn’t know he was going Roger Bannister on the Open Championship.
“I honestly didn’t know,” Grace said, admitting that his caddie Zack Rasego broke the news to him after he two-putted from the back fringe for a closing par.
For years now, we’ve been waiting for someone to shoot 62 in a major championship. Tiger Woods lipped out a putt for 62 at the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills and Phil Mickelson still can’t believe his putt for 62 at Royal Troon last summer didn’t go in. Others have flirted with the new frontier.
If there was a question about 62, it’s what’s taken so long?
For 33 years, 63 has been the number in major championships – 31 players had done it – until the 29-year-old Grace changed the math Saturday.
The Perfect Day
It was the perfect day and the right place to do it. After a wretched Friday when it rained, blew and rained some more, Saturday dawned like a lovely spring day. The air was warm. The wind, at its strongest, was a whisper. There were birdies in the air.
The R&A was in a benevolent mood as well. The tees were moved up approximately 30 yards on the already short par-4 fifth to encourage players to try to drive the green. At the par-3 seventh, the tees were moved forward as well. With the fire doused from the fairways and with no wind, which determines the personality of the great links, it was like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The scorecard Saturday said par was 70. In reality, Grace said, it was probably 67.
That says something about the conditions. It also says something about the state of the modern game. Royal Birkdale, a truly classic links, was overmatched Saturday.
As far as players hit the ball today and with technology that allows them to dial in their wedge play to the millimeter, it’s fair to say it won’t take 33 years for someone to shoot 61 in a major championship. It looked for a time as if Dustin Johnson could do it, just an hour or two after Grace had signed his historic card.
Maybe what happened Saturday at Royal Birkdale will spur the game’s governing bodies to be more aggressive in controlling the ball and the equipment that has changed the game drastically in recent years. It’s entertaining to watch the best in the world blowtorch a course from time to time but it’s becoming almost routine.
Four players – Robert Streb, Henrik Stenson, Mickelson and Justin Thomas – shot 63 in the previous four majors.
That’s not to say what Grace did was easy. It wasn’t. It was sublime.
“You still have to go out there and do it,” he said.
Showing his golfer’s soul, Grace admitted he left a shot or two on the course, ticking off two medium-length putts he felt he should have made. To be fair, Grace said, he also made three long ones that turned 65 into a piece of history.
How Does It Compare?
Because we have an insatiable desire to rate everything the moment it happens, the question was immediately asked if Grace’s 8-under-par 62 is the greatest round in major championship history?
But it was the lowest.
And for all the people who seemed to take joy in the fact that Johnny Miller’s famous 63 at Oakmont in the 1973 U.S. Open is no longer part of the major championship standard, they’re missing the point. Miller’s round remains the gold standard in major championship play, though a handful of others share his company.
Just a month ago, Thomas shot 9-under par at Erin Hills. Hiroshi Iwata shot 9 under in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits two years ago. Mickelson and Stenson shot 8-under-par 63s at Royal Troon last year. Greg Norman and Nick Price shot 9-under-par 63s at Augusta National.
They’re like diamonds. They’re all special.
“Talking about this can go on forever,” Grace said. “I’m just happy with shooting a good round at a special tournament. And on a great day.
“But whether you shoot 63, 62 or 60, you have to do something right and things have to go your way to be able to do that. I’m not going to take anything away from a guy shooting 63 on a (par) 72 or anything of what I did today. All in all some great golf.”
Like nothing before.