SOUTHPORT, England—Turn out the lights. Club 63 has closed.
Branden Grace’s third-round 62 at Royal Birkdale breaks one of golf’s longest-standing standards and vaults the South African into British Open contention. Not that he had any idea at the time.
After Grace made a 3-foot putt for par on 18, caddie Zack Rasego told Grace, “You’re in the history books.”
“I didn’t know what was going on on 18, I promise you,” Grace said.
Played under partly-sunny, almost wind-free skies — a day after wind and rain greeted the field — a softened Birkdale remained in perfect playing condition with turf as pristine as any Grace has enjoyed in six previous Opens. While he’s finally contending in his favorite major, he will forever be known for breaking the 63 mark. With 31 scores of 63 in 442 modern majors, Grace now holds the lowest score in major championship history. Last month, Justin Thomas tied the record for lowest score in relation to par with his 63 at the U.S. Open.
Grace’s record round stands out in part because of the sheer peculiarity of the near-62 misses. Phil Mickelson’s lip-out at Troon last year was the most recent of inexplicable moments where odd bounces and cruel lip-outs prevented a barrier-busting round.
In this case, Grace struck the ball beautifully from beginning to end. He hit 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens and hit 28 putts. He admitted leaving “a couple out there” but conceded he made up for missed opportunities with “those long bombs that I made.”
Grace drained a 15-footer at the first, an 18-footer at the ninth and had a tap-in birdie at the par-5 17th. His other five birdie putts were more than 25-feet and included putts longer than 40 feet at the 14th and 16th greens.
“I was just so in the zone of playing, hole after hole,” Grace said. “I knew I was obviously playing really well, and making the turn in five-under was pretty special. And I thought if I could make a couple more on the back nine, then it’s going to be a great score. I had no idea that 62 was obviously the lowest ever.”
The 29-year-old was ranked 10th in the world a year ago but has struggled with his short game, falling to 35th entering this week. He has just one top-10 on the PGA Tour and another on the European Tour, where he splits his time.
“I was superb from tee to green,” he said. “I didn’t always hit it the closest, but I gave myself the chances and that’s all you need to do on a golf course like this. If I can do the same tomorrow, I should be in there with a chance.”
Grace handed the ball to Rasego at round’s end, but has retained the scorecard slip and glove. He credited a recent conversation with Rasego, who caddied Louis Oosthuizen to the 2010 Open title, for helping reinvigorate his game.
“We actually had a good chat last week at the Scottish, and I told him we need to start communicating again,” Grace said. “I feel we’re playing well, but it’s just not happening. We had a good chat and it’s been working ever since.”
Grace took some of the blame for his struggles, citing the tinkering nature of golfers.
“We like to fiddle. We like change,” he said. “Today we’re playing well, some guy will maybe put a new putter in the bag for tomorrow. That’s just what we are.”
Playing with Jason Dufner (66), Grace appeared loose down the stretch and laughed a few times at Dufner comments. As the round progressed, he appeared to spend more of his time on yardage-book calculations. After his two-putt birdie at the 17th from above the hole, Grace calmly teed his ball lower than normal at the elevated 18th tee.
“My whole thing on the 18th was trying just not to make bogey,” Grace said “I hit a great wedge in there, just caught a fly, a little bit of a jumper and made it tough for myself. But obviously I knocked in the three-footer. And Zack (Rasego) came up and said, ‘You’re in the history books.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Though still in a state of disbelief, Grace was able to realize the gravity of the situation.
“What a special day. And to do it at a special place at one of the events that I actually like playing, at The Open. I’ve not always finished great in them. But this is the one that I’ve always liked. So what a special place to get myself into the history books.”