Saturday morning started with golf’s newest broadcast voice making a bold proclamation.
“Don’t tell Johnny I said this, but there’s a 62 out there today,” said NBC’s Jim “Bones” McKay, who carried the bag when Phil Mickelson’s putt for 62 inexplicably veered out of the hole in the last six inches at Royal Troon last year.
Johnny, of course, is NBC lead analyst Johnny Miller, who has been the been the foremost authority on the major’s magic number since he shot the first 63 in major championship golf when it seemed an impossible dream. For the last 44 years, Miller’s been golf’s version of the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins dodging assaults on his throne.
That ended Saturday when South African Branden Grace lowered the bar with a 62 in the third round of the British Open at a defenseless Royal Birkdale. It only took 442 majors to establish that mark.
“I’m going to enjoy it for now, while it lasts,” Grace said as waves of threats to his record rolled in the hours after he finished. “What a special place to get myself into the history books.”
Miller “enjoyed” it all, as one scribe said on Twitter, about as much as “a father watching his daughter’s prom date unfold.” His running on-air commentary as Grace kept cruising to the record was classic in qualifying statements.
“It’s a perfect storm today looking at the conditions,” Miller said when told of Bones’ morning prediction. “Somebody could really do well today. It’s playing really short.”
“After the scoring average was 74 in the tough weather yesterday, the R&A must have been feeling very charitable,” he added later.
“Look at that number; that is sweet,” Miller finally conceded when Grace knocked in his 3-footer for par to seal it. “It was set up really, really easy today, folks, but still a heckuva round.”
He’s not wrong. Royal Birkdale dropped all its weapons Saturday. A soft course, a few forward tees and no wind were a recipe for the best players to take dead aim at birdies.
A day after Zach Johnson’s 66 in nasty conditions felt like a 59, a Bob Hope Desert Classic shootout suddenly broke out. Playing alone with the first tee time of Saturday, another South African, Shaun Norris, went out and shot a smooth 65 to set a tone many would follow.
Then came Grace, pouring in birdie putts from 15 to 40 feet on holes 1, 4, 8, 9, 14 and 16 and adding tap-in birdies at 5 and 17.
“I was just enjoying what he was doing,” said playing partner Jason Dufner, who left a putt for 62 short en route to winning the 2013 PGA.
Grace missed only two greens but putted onto both to save pars on 10 and 18 to match the fictional 62 that Roy McAvoy shot in the second round of the U.S. Open in the movie Tin Cup.
“It’s one of the best ball-striking rounds of my career,” he said. “I played flawlessly from tee to green and made some great putts. It was a special day to be quite honest.”
It’s been a long time coming in an era when players have fired 58 and 59 in regular tour events with more frequency.
Miller, as golf fans might have heard, fired his 63 in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open on America’s most demanding golf course at Oakmont, Miller etched his place in the record books in his breakthrough major win. It had taken 33 years for anyone to break the 64 first set by Lloyd Mangrum in the opening round of the 1940 Masters.
In the 44 ensuing years, he’s seen many of the games greats take a run at the record starting with Bruce Crampton in the PGA Championship at Firestone in 1975 through Justin Thomas in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills last month.
Nick Price lipped out his 62nd shot at the Masters in 1986. Tiger Woods did the same in the PGA at Southern Hills in 2007.
In all, 29 players had reached 63 on 31 major occasions at 21 different courses. Greg Norman (1986 Turnberry, 1996 Augusta National) and Vijay Singh (1993 Inverness, 2003 Olympia Fields) shot it twice. The list includes Hall of Famers like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd and Nick Faldo as well as relative rank-and-filers like Jodie Mudd, Michael Bradley, Hiroshi Iwata and Robert Streb.
Amazingly, Grace promised that he was blissfully unaware of all that history.
“I had no idea whatsoever that it was the lowest at all,” he said. “I was so in the zone and playing so well that I was just trying to finish the round without a bogey and I was trying to make another (birdie) at the last. That’s all I was trying to do. Sometimes it helps not knowing these things. … When you get on a run like that, you stop thinking about golf.”
Grace likely won’t have to wait 44 years before his mark is bested. He survived his first challenger in the hour after posting his score as world No. 1 Dustin Johnson only mustered one birdie in the last eight holes to settle for 64.
So as golf shifts its target to a major 61, the record book was rewritten with uncommon Grace. Whatever comes next, he takes his place with Miller and Mangrum and Al Geiberger as the man who lowered the bar.
“He will forever be the first to shoot 62 in a major championship,” said countryman Gary Player.