SOUTHPORT, England – The Pros from Dover (it’s a M*A*S*H reference, people) are staying comfortably this week in a house owned by a man who until Saturday had the course record at Royal Birkdale. The landlord for the PFDs is a 62-year-old gentleman named Robert Parry, M.D., white-haired and slender, with a hitting net in his backyard and a shelf of golf books in his parlor room. The 63 he shot one day at his home club is immortalized in gold paint on a plaque in the Royal Birkdale members’ bar. More paint, or something, will go up soon, in honor of the third-round 62 shot by a 29-year-old visitor from South Africa, Branden Grace. And to that, Dr. Parry says, Good on him!
“I’ve still got the amateur record,” he said cheerfully to one of the Dover pros, standing (coincidentally) near the plaque that bears his name. Yes, the amateur record. Also, he still has that medical degree, although Master Grace won the Masters this year, the one played in Qatar. So he’s got that going for him, which is (all together now) nice.
In other parts of the clubhouse, the reaction to the gent’s eight-under card was much the same: nicely done, young sir. “It’s good for Birkdale, it’s great for Birkdale,” one member said. “Every time the record is mentioned, Birkdale will be mentioned with it.”
Branden Grace’s card that made history: pic.twitter.com/Vx4udWAYp8
— GOLF.com (@golf_com) July 22, 2017
It’s a big-hearted way to look at it. Master Grace has now the 18-hole record for low score in a men’s major championship. Thirty cards of 63 have been returned in men’s majors since Johnny Miller was the first to do it at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. And now there is a 62, no asterisk on it. Royal Birkdale, Branden Grace, 2017 Open Championship, third round, 62. Majestic.
One of the Dover Pros has logged a good amount of time at Oakmont and can tell you that the Oakmont members—man, woman and child—didn’t even want to think about the prospect of a 62 when U.S. Open made return visits to famed greater Pittsburgh golfing torture chamber in 1983, in 1994, in 2007 and 2016. (Loren Roberts did shoot a 64 in ’94.) Oakmont in particular and the USGA in general does not like it when guys go low. Hence, greens rolling 14 on the Stimpmeter and pins on knobs.
The attitude at Royal Birkdale in particular and the R&A in general is to play the course as nature, aided but not manipulated by man, prepares it.
The sea breezes were mild on Saturday. The greens were Stimping around 10—typical country-club speed, Stateside. The greens and fairways were receptive, from all the rain that has fallen on greater Liverpool in recent days. A week ago, the firmness of the fairways, as measured by something called the Clegg Hammer Test, measured about 130. (Drop a golf ball from shoulder height on a 130 CHT fairway and you will hear a dull thud and see the ball bounce.) By Thursday, the Royal Birkdale fairways were Clegging around 115. Not mushy—let us stand in praise of sandy soil!—but not exactly linoleum, either.
Jordan Spieth has been predicting for a while that a 62 was coming. In March, in fact, he said, “Of the four majors, I’d say Augusta or the Open Championship when it’s played at St. Andrews are the best chances for somebody to break 63. At the Masters you can drive the ball in the fairway, and the British Open can give you weather conditions that are conducive to scoring. It will happen. It’s just a matter of when.”
When came. On Saturday, Master Spieth watched on TV as Master Grace, who was his Sunday playing partner when he won the 2015 U.S. Open, made a birdie on one. Asked about his friend’s 62 shortly after posting a Saturday 65 himself, Spieth said, “The difference between 63 and 62 at a regular Tour event is not that big a deal. At a major, it’s huge.” It must be. It took 44 years for somebody to finally break it. The new record-holder seemed almost bashful about his gaudy score. The man who recorded Grace’s score in the scorer’s room, Nigel Marsh, said, that the South African golfer was a study in calm as he checked the boxes on his card, just “going about his business.”
Late in the afternoon, the sun shining but storm clouds gathering, one of the Pros from Dover made a visit to the Royal Birkdale course maintenance department, surrounded by scrubby pines off the left side of No. 1. The Royal Birkdale greenkeeper—course manager, in the modern parlance—is a man named Chris Whittle, known well to Rob Parry, M.D. and 63-shooter, and to many Royal Birkdale members. He has been at the club for close to a quarter-century and his two sons, who work at the club today, have grown up there. The last time Course Manager Whittle was seen by any of the Dover Pros was in 1991, when he was the superintendent at Muirfield.
There was a warm reunion, 26 summers later, and some shared memories of an evening golf game at his beloved Scottish golfing home, the North Berwick East Links, known as the Glen Course. Course Manager Whittle was asked a single and direct question about Master Grace’s historic round of golf on his course.
“Are you happy about it?”
“Oh, God, yes,” Course Manager Whittle said without hesitation. “He’s an excellent player and he showed it!”