Colin Montgomerie, former eight-time European Tour Order of Merit champion sounded the warning bells early on Saturday morning. At Royal Birkdale for broadcast duties, upon examining the course set up and the forecast, he found the golf course 'defenseless' and asked, "Are we on a 62 watch today?"
Those literate in the ways of golf terminology were very quick to pick up that the day was going to be a game of darts and a putting contest, and South African Branden Grace did not disappoint. Grace, who started the day at +4, fired birdies on hole numbers 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 14, 16 and 17 to shoot the lowest round — a 62 in the 157 years since major championship golf started.
The Open, in its 146th edition, is of course the oldest professional golf championship but wasn't played during the years of war. Grace's heroics moved him from T45 to T2 by the time he completed his historical round.
Grace needed 28 putts after hitting 16 greens in regulation to post this magical number. That Grace was not aware during his round that he was on track to make history and played his round 'zoned' in taking it one shot at a time makes his achievement all the more remarkable. His caddie Zack Rasego wisely chose to stay quiet until Grace putted out for par on the 18th. Grace now finds himself tied in fifth place going in to the final round.
It rained birdies and sub-par scores all day long on a 'soft and still' golf course at Royal Birkdale. At the very start, the first three golfers out broke par and how. First man out Shaun Norris from South Africa, playing with a marker, matched the course record with a flawless 65. The next two out — English duo, Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood — came back carding a 69 and a 66 respectively.
An unbelievable total of 45 rounds in red figures were fired on Saturday, just seven golfers came home in red numbers. Add to that 15 rounds of even par in a truncated field off 77 golfers, left only 17 golfers over par — a miserly 25 percent of the field.
What followed showed the scary reality of exactly how competitive the game has become and just how deep the field in the world of professional golf is today. Another two 65's were fired by Australian pair of Scott Hend and Jason Day before the 'Branden Grace' round, adding to the opening day 65's recorded by Americans Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar and Brooks Koepka.
Add to this list Colombian golfer Camillo Villegas, who owned the original 65 shot in the 2008 championship, and we had the course record for a brief moment in time jointly held by seven golfers until Grace rewrote the history books.
A strong case of ownership of the Royal Birkdale course record can be made for American golfer Jodie Mudd, who shot a 63 back at the 1991 championship. However, back then the layout was shorter and several green complexes have been relaid since. Either way, Grace's 62 has laid that argument to rest — he is the worthy owner of the 'all-time lowest single round score in 157 years of major championship golf'.
Spieth continued his stranglehold on The Open bringing in a 65 to extend his lead to three shots over countryman Kuchar. Spieth has played a total of 69 rounds in major championship golf and has led the tournament in an astounding 14 of those rounds. He fired a bogey-free 65, bringing the hammer down on playing partner Kuchar with his fifth birdie of the day on the final hole, where Kuchar missed an eight-foot birdie.
Kuchar brought in a 66, that could have been a 65, that could have been a 63 — a double-bogey six on the 16th hugely damaged the momentum he built with birdies on the 14th and 15th. He bounced back to birdie the 17th and then missed an eight-foot birdie on the final hole. Interestingly, Kuchar made it to the US Olympic golf team in 2016 when Spieth elected not to make the trip on health and security concern grounds; Kuchar brought home the bronze medal.
Being three shots ahead of Kuchar and six ahead of Koepka and Austin Connelly (Canada), it really looks like Spieth had got one hand on the trophy. Spieth is making the putts that matter, his iron play and distance control seem to be getting better with each round, so far this has been the 'Jordan Spieth Open'.
Koepka seemed to struggle with all departments of his game on Saturday, carding a 68 that comprised four bogies and six birdies. He remains in the hunt and will certainly need to get out of the gates hard and fast on Sunday morning to apply any pressure on Spieth and Kuchar.
Connelly, who sits along side Koepka at -5, brought in a 66 that included an eagle, four birdies and two bogies. I might add that 20-year-old Connelly birdied the first and eagled the second holes to swiftly move in to a tie for second place behind Spieth before slightly slowing down. He is coached by Cameron McCormick, who also coaches Spieth.
Grace occupies T5 and will play with Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama on Sunday. Matsuyama used his prodigious power to find his way out of the hay that his occasionally errant tee balls found. A solid 66 moved him back in to contention with a total score of -4.
Tied in seventh place and paired together for Sunday's showdown are defending champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who came back with a 66 and current world number one golfer Dustin Johnson, who although carded a 64 and wasn't too far from matching Grace's feat. Johnson, who averaged a mammoth 337 yards off the tee on Saturday, played flawlessly from tee to green and made six birdies in the first 15 holes.
Thereafter, a missed birdie attempt from 10 feet on the 16th and a legitimate birdie opportunity let go on the 17th hole meant that Johnson was a reachable par 5 in two shots. A perfect drive was followed by a pulled iron to a green side bunker, and then by a semi thinned bunker shot. Johnson never really gave himself a look at a birdie. Another stress-free par followed on the 18th and he signed for a 64 and a three-under total to book his date with Stenson.
History is on Spieth's side, no player at this venue has come back to win after making up for more than a two-stroke deficit. Spieth has a very strong conversion rate to boast of, having won eight of the nine events that he has led or co-led after three rounds.
Other notable players: Rafa Cabrera Bello (Spain) -3/T7; Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) and Ian Poulter (England) -2/T11; Rickie Fowler (USA) and Alex Noren (Sweden) -1/T15; Paul Casey (England), Sergio Garcia (Spain) and Jason Day (Australia) E/T18; Ernie Els (South Africa), Thongchai Jaidee (Thailand), Bubba Watson (USA) and Tommy Fleetwood England) +1/T29; Adam Scott (Australia) and Jon Rahm (Spain) +3/T43; Martin Kaymer (Germany) and Justin Rose (England) +4/T52.
Vintage Johnny Miller moment: But of course, in the least surprising quote of the day, Miller dissed, "They set it up really, really easy today."
Useless statistic of the day: Six of the 15 Open qualifiers made it through to the weekend.
Unlucky 13 exists: Yes, that's the number of former Open champions that failed to advance to the weekend — Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Tom Lehman, Paul Laurie, Stuart Cink, Phil Michelson, David Duval, John Daly, Louis Oosthuizen, Sandy Lyle and Todd Hamilton.
31 breaks the tie: 31 rounds of 63 have been fired in major championship golf, from Johnny Miller's winning final round effort in the 1975 US Open leading up to Justin Thomas's third round in the 2017 US Open. Yep 42 years, 31 ties and finally a 62.
Feel-good story of the day: 38-year-old Royal Birkdale pro shop assistant Gregg Petterson received a call at 9.50 pm as he walked to the club car park, asking him to take on the role of 'playing marker' with lone morning starter Shaun Norris. He obliged and regaled in the atmosphere shooting a 4-over par. For the final round duties he gave up his spot to fellow assistant pro, Nick Jennings who will play in the morning flight with former Masters champion Danny Willet. Patterson said "I've had my time, I had fun. Let Nick have a great time."
Respect for your seniors moment: Tommy Fleetwood was asked by the media how awesome he felt having throngs following him around the golf course; he dead panned "A little bit of me being the local boy, and lots of him being Justin Rose." They were paired together.
The author is a golfer who represented India from 1988 to 1991 and captained the West Zone from 1996 to 2001
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 07:22 AM