Let’s begin by giving Branden Grace his due: A century and a half after the British Open began, he is the first man to shoot 62 in a men’s major championship. (Three women have done it and Hyo-Joo Kim posted a 61 at the 2014 Evian, but that’s a different column for a different day.) Grace was flawless on Saturday at Royal Birkdale, making eight birdies against no bogies during his historic round. He hit 10 fairways and 16 greens and took 28 putts, roaring to the record by birdieing the 14th, 16th and 17th holes. That Grace did not know he was playing for history does nothing to diminish the accomplishment.
But how will Grace’s 62 be remembered?
Johnny Miller’s 63 has been so mythologized through the years—even by a few folks other than himself—because it propelled him to a U.S. Open victory. Saturday heroics by definition are less dramatic. If Grace had bogied the last hole it still would have been a terrific round. If Miller bogied the last hole he probably doesn’t win the Open. Different stakes. Having begun the 146th Open Championship with rounds of 70-74, Grace now sits tied for 5th, seven strokes behind Jordan Spieth. If Grace shoots another crazy-low round and steals the Open, his 62 will retroactively take on much more historical weight. Failing that, it will be of secondary importance to what the champion has accomplished.
Even in a vacuum irrespective of tournament results, Grace’s round is not quite as grand as it appears. Dustin Johnson followed with a bogeyless 64 in which he parred seven of the last eight holes. Spieth, with the heavy burden of playing in the last group, shot a bogeyless 65. (When Miller dropped a 63 on Oakmont, there were only three other scores in the 60s that day; Saturday at Birkdale there were 43.) Rain-softened greens, little wind, and seemingly no chance to win at the start of the day allowed Grace to attack a defenseless course that had been shortened to a petite 7,027 yards, with the par-4 5th slashed 36 yards to 310 to make it easily drivable, and the tough par-3 seventh downsized to a mere 156 yards. (Grace birdied both.)
Early in the Sky telecast, European tour stalwart Paul McGinley wondered why the R&A had set up Birkdale so benignly. “I just don’t think the boys need extra help today,” McGinley said. Seeing how easy the course was playing, Jim (Bones) Mackay predicted a 62 on NBC long before Grace’s heroics. As did Colin Montgomerie, over on the Golf Channel.
In the end, Grace’s 62 was 7.03 strokes better than the field average. For the sake of comparison, Jim Furyk’s 58 in the final round of the 2016 Travelers bettered the field average by a whopping 10.65 strokes. Justin Thomas’s 63 at last month’s U.S. Open—on a par-72 that was 700 yards longer than Birkdale—beat the field average by 9.02 strokes.
All credit to Grace: He did what no one has managed to do before him. It was a spectacular round of golf. It was historic. But, strangely, plenty of other rounds have been just as impressive, if not more so.