SOUTHPORT, England – Against the backdrop of spectacular billowing clouds off the Lancashire coast, a small plane buzzed overhead, the only significant noise as South African Branden Grace crouched over his putt at the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale. The stands were not completely full, but down the fairway, fans stopped in the middle of the walkway, anxiously hoping to catch a glimpse of history before marshals shooed them behind the ropes.
A stillness filled the air. Collective breaths were held. The moment of a lifetime awaited. Grace was 45 feet and two putts away from shooting the lowest round in major championship history.
Only he didn’t know it.
“I didn’t know what was going on on 18,” Grace said. “I promise you.”
No matter. Everyone else did – including his veteran Soweto-born caddie Zack Rasego, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa and was on the bag when Louis Oosthuizen won the 2010 Open Championship. In the 442 previous majors – 81 Masters, 117 U.S. Opens, 145 Open Championships and 98 PGA Championships – the lowest score ever recorded was 63. It had been done 31 times in the hundreds of thousands of rounds played since the first major, the 1860 Open at Prestwick.
Rasego himself only found out moments earlier about the record chase. According to the BBC, Rasego was told by Kevin Baile, the caddie of playing partner Jason Dufner, that Grace was about to cross into unchartered territory. Grace’s first putt left him within tap-in range for par. Only after the ball fell into the cup was Grace told what he had done.
“You’re in the history books,” Rasego said.
“What are you talking about?” Grace responded.
It finally hit him. A short while later, Grace sheepishly admitted, “I had no idea that 62 was obviously the lowest ever.”
But we should’ve seen it coming. After two days of typical blustery Open-like conditions, Royal Birkdale opened its arms and invited everybody to have a go. Saturday was a perfect storm of scoring conditions – soft greens, manageable winds, welcomed sunshine, and a course that’s as fair as any in The Open rotation. Plus, the tee box at the par-4 fifth had been moved up 30 yards and was now drivable, while the tee was also up on the par-3 seventh.
Royal Birkdale was gettable.
Grace was the 24th player to tee off in the third round. Earlier that morning, after arriving at the course, he flipped through his Twitter feed and saw a Tweet from Charlie Ford, an English pro who currently plays on the Challenge Tour. Wrote Ford: “Making an early prediction for today at The Open and calling for the course record to go. Tons of overnight rain and a glorious day today.” Grace didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but he was certainly cognizant of the red numbers littering the leaderboard of those already on the course. In Friday’s second round, just eight players in the entire field had recorded rounds in the 60s. When another South African, Brandon Stone, finished his third round early Saturday with a 68, he was the eighth player to score in the 60s … and just the 12th to finish.
Of all the players who made the cut this week, Grace certainly wouldn’t have been the first one expected to break the record. His form has been improving – four top-15 finishes in his last six starts – but it had been more than a year since his last win, the 2016 RBC Heritage.
Searching for a jumpstart, Grace switched caddies in May, tabbing Danny Willett’s former caddie Jon Smart to carry his bag. But Grace and Rasego recently reunited, and were together last week at the Scottish Open when Grace finished T-15. Although Grace was 4 over through two rounds at Royal Birkdale, hitting the restart button paid dividends on Saturday.
Explained Grace: “I think anything in life maybe a lack of communication, a lack of trust, things like that. Those things go out the window and then you feel for change, especially golfers. We like to fiddle. We like change. Today we’re playing well, some guy will maybe put a new putter in the bag for tomorrow. That’s just what we are. “We actually had a good chat last week at the Scottish, 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.”
So what worked on Saturday? Not surprisingly, pretty much everything in a round that included eight birdies. Grace gained early momentum with a birdie on the opening hole. He made a lengthy birdie putt at the fourth to set the tone on the greens. He drove the fifth hole and two-putted for birdie there. He made the turn in 29 after a birdie at the ninth.
“I can’t remember the last time I made a 29,” Grace said.
He avoided trouble off the tee and kept rolling in long putts, including a 40-footer at the 15th after failing to birdie the par-5 15th when his birdie putt lipped out. His ball-striking was terrific, and playing with Dufner helped keep the mood light. Even on the 18th green, Dufner made a comment that made Grace laugh. “He is a character,” Grace said. “He is always making jokes and things like that. I had a great day.”
Plus, Grace made have benefitted from some good karma. A month ago, he donated 1.5 million rand (approximately $116,000) to the fire relief fund in Knysna, which is on the Garden Route along the Western Cape in South Africa, where his brother lives. Grace grew up in Buffalo Bay, about 20 kilometers from Knysna, which had suffered billions of dollars in damage due to widespread fires. Several people died, and thousands lost their homes. His parents still live in Buffalo Bay.
On Saturday, he heard one spectator shout out, “Do it for Knysna.” It became a source of inspiration.
“It is really tragic what happened back there,” Grace said. “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.
“And like I said, if it (the 62) puts a smile on those people’s faces, and maybe there’s a light tomorrow for them.”
Perhaps the only person who may not have been smiling was Johnny Miller, the first of those 31 players to shoot 63 in a major. As Sergio Garcia joked later about Grace’s round, “Probably everybody is happy in the world other than one guy – Johnny Miller.”
But Miller, working in the NBC Sports booth as the lead analyst, praised Grace’s performance. “He did it with his ball striking,” Miller said. “He had to go through the gauntlet. Those putts that he made were really strong and he drove the ball terrifically. He made the course really easy. It was set up really, really easy today folks, but it was still a heck of a round.”
Then he said something that we could all agree on.
“It’s about time.”
As Grace walked off the 18th green, now knowing he had gone where no golfer had ever gone before, he casually flipped the historic golf ball to Rasego. Asked later what he planned to do with the ball, Grace wasn’t sure.
In fact, he wasn’t even sure he still had it. After their rounds, golfers typically hand out autographed golf balls to standard bearers and other officials and observers who had been part of the walking group. One of those signed balls may well have been the one that dropped into the cup at 18.
“I don’t know if Zack kept it aside or we gave it away,” Grace said.
No worries. The history books will reflect Grace’s record-setting day. That’s all the proof anybody needs.