Branden Grace didn’t even know. Just as well, maybe, as the two-footer he was faced with to become the first male golfer to card a 62 in a Major would probably have felt much longer. It wasn’t until after he’d rolled that in that the 29-year-old South African was made aware of his record-breaking feat.
“I didn’t know what was going on on 18, I promise you,” said Grace as he reflected on taking full advantage of near-perfect conditions for the third round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale to eclipse no less than 31 players, including 10 in this event, who had previously carded 63s in golf’s biggest events.
His caddie, Zack Rasego, clearly knew the significance of what was transpiring on a beautiful day on the Lancashire coast as he was quick to alert Grace about what he’d achieved. “He came up and said, ‘you’re in the history books’. And I was like, ‘what are you talking about? I was just so in the zone of playing hole after hole.”
As that paid dividends in a round that contained birdies at the first, fourth, fifth, eighth and ninth in a front nine of 29 then the 14th, 16th and 17th coming home, Rasego kept whatever excitement may have been building up inside to himself. “I think he did,” replied Grace to being asked if he thought the caddie knew exactly what was in the offing. He never said anything, so good on him, I suppose (laughing).”
Grace, who shot a 60 at Kingsbarns in winning the Dunhill Links Championship in 2012, was delighted that he’d achieved his historic feat in this event, one that had seen Mark Hayes, Isao Aoki, Greg Norman, Paul Broadhurst, Jodie Mudd, Nick Faldo, Payne Stewart, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and, most recently, Henrik Stenson all sign for 63s over the years.
“It’s special. It really is,” he admitted. “It’s always nice shooting a low number, whether it’s in a tournament or with friends. Then finding out what you’ve done makes it even better, it really does. And to do it at the Open Championship – one of the events that I actually like playing in – is pretty special. It’s something I really enjoyed and something I’ll remember forever, definitely.”
So he should because, even though the conditions were as easy as you are ever likely to get on a links course, he still went out and executed the shots and did so on one of the biggest stages in the game. One that is very different, of course, to when 62 was last shot in the Open Championship by Bob Martin, the winner in 1876 and 1885, at Prestwick in 1881. It was the last year the original 12-hole course at Prestwick was used.
At a time when three rounds of 12 holes made up the contest, Bob Ferguson, the winner, shot 53 in that event while the lowest score in an Open Championship on any size of course was 47 (no “par” in those days) by Young Tom Morris in the first round at Prestwick in 1870, the year he won for the third year in succession and was awarded the Belt in perpetuity.
Grace has long been considered the most likely among a strong crop of South Africans to join Gary Player, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel to become a Major winner. He was in contention in the US Open at Chambers Bay in 2014 before an untimely wayward shot disappeared over a railway line. His best finish in this event was joint-20th at St Andrews two years ago, but more of the same in the last round on the Lancashire coast could see him get in the mix down the closing stretch.
“I knew I was obviously playing really well, and making the turn in five-under was pretty special,” he said. “I thought if I could make a couple more on the back nine, then it was going to be a great score. I had no idea that 62 was the lowest ever. Obviously, now it makes it even more special than what it was. My whole thinking on the 18th was trying just not to make bogey. I hit a great wedge in there, just caught a fly, a little bit of a jumper and made it tough for myself. But I knocked in the two-footer or three-footer. Obviously I don’t know what the guys are going to do this afternoon, but it’s nice knowing that I had a good round. It’s in me and just looking forward to tomorrow.”
Rasego could be a lucky charm after helping Oosthuizen to pick up the Claret Jug at St Andrews seven years ago. “I would definitely put him up there,” replied Grace to being asked if Rasego was among the top few caddies in the game. “He’s an old man now (laughing). He knows a lot more than I do. He’s a great guy and he’s a good friend. We actually had a good chat last week at the Scottish Open, and I told him we need to start communicating again. I feel we’re playing well, but it’s just not happening. We had a good chat and it’s been working ever since.”
As well as being one of the world’s top golfers, Grace is clearly a generous man, having recently donated almost £100,000 to Gift of the Givers, a foundation that is helping a rebuilding effort after 10,000 residents were forced to flee their homes in Knysna as fires fuelled by storm winds ripped through the Western Cape last month. “There was actually a spectator out there today that said, ‘do it for Knysna’,” revealed Grace, smiling. “That was great. Then you start thinking about things again. It is really tragic what happened back there. But, knowing that I was in the position to help, that’s the right thing to do. So you don’t even think twice about it. Hopefully a lot of lives can be changed and can be kind of restored, if I can put it that way. If it puts a smile on those people’s faces, maybe there’s a light tomorrow for them.”
Almost as soon as Grace’s historic putt dropped, the debate ignited about the value of a 62 on a par-70 course compared to the efforts of a number of players who had shot 63 on a course with a higher par. “Talking about this can go on forever,” said Grace. “It’s like when somebody plays on a 70 shoots a 59. I’ve shot 12-under on a links golf course and I’ve shot 60 – I’ve actually bettered that score that person has done. I’m just happy 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.”