SOUTHPORT, England – A good caddie knows what to say when the tension builds and the stakes are high. A great caddie knows when it’s best to not say anything.
Count Zack Rasego among the latter, as proven by his mum performance on Saturday while his man, Branden Grace, plodded his way into the history books.
When Grace, who completed his round before the leaders even teed off for Round 3 at The Open, turned in 29, Rasego said nothing. When the South African added birdies at Nos. 14, 16 and 17, the veteran looper remained aloof.
Even when his man airmailed the green at the last and needed to get up-and-down for par to shoot the lowest round in men’s major championship history, Rasego was reticent.
It wasn’t until Grace calmly rolled in his 3-footer for par for an 8-under 62 that Rasego finally came clean.
“Zack came up and said, ‘You're in the history books.” And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Grace laughed.
They’ve been playing major championship golf for 157 years and a 62 had remained the Grand Slam unicorn, with players repeatedly flirting with history, as recently as last month at the U.S. Open when Justin Thomas did it on Day 3, and yet somehow Grace was oblivious to the elephant in the Royal Birkdale room?
“Let's get this out of the way: I didn't know what was going on on [No.] 18. I promise you,” he assured.
Credit Rasego for keeping his man in the dark. Who knows how Grace would have handled that delicate par save at the last had he known the stakes, but if relative ignorance was bliss there’s still no ignoring the depth of his accomplishment.
Let the social handwringing begin. There will be those who will needlessly handicap Grace’s round because of Saturday’s benign conditions. Grace himself figured par on Day 3 at the 146th edition was about 67.
Thomas’ 63, a 9 under card at Erin Hills that set a new major record for relation to par, produced a similar devil’s advocate response.
“It looks like a PGA Tour event course setup,” Johnny Miller, who was the first to shoot 63 in a major at the 1973 U.S. Open, said of Erin Hills. “I’m not sure where the days of the 24- to 29-yard-wide fairways that we played every time went. It’s interesting to see where the USGA has gone with the U.S. Open, being a little more friendly than in years’ past.”
On Saturday, Miller, who is calling the action for NBC Sports, was a tad more enthusiastic, but only a tad.
“Sweet, look at that number, that is sweet,” he said of Grace’s round before adding, “It was set up really, really easy today, folks.”
With respect to Miller or anyone else who wishes to rationalize the relative impressiveness of either Thomas’ or Grace’s rounds, records, by definition, need no generational footnotes.
Erin Hills’ fairways were undoubtedly wider than those at the ’73 U.S. Open, but then Miller likely didn’t have to negotiate greens that were rolling 13 on the Stimpmeter.
In Grace’s case, there’s also no denying that Saturday’s conditions along the Irish Sea were vastly better than those faced by the field on Friday afternoon, but in 145 Opens there’s been no shortage of fine days on the links that could have easily been the backdrop to a similarly historic round.
Nothing distracts from the gravity of a sporting accomplishment more than an asterisk, and nothing about Grace or Thomas’ rounds deserve such provisos.
Perhaps the game’s rule makers need to revisit the distance modern players hit the golf ball as more and more of golf’s treasured benchmarks are shattered, but that has nothing to do with Grace or Thomas.
It will be interesting the reaction Grace’s round will produce. Thomas’ 63 at Erin Hills, along with champion Brooks Koepka’s 16-under total, set off a chain reaction of complaints. No way Erin Hills should ever host another U.S. Open, was the consensus.
Whatever scoring accomplishments occur over the next round and a half at Royal Birkdale there will be no such outcry. Instead, fans, officials and players will concede that Mother Nature, so brutal on Friday, never arrived on Saturday – c’est la vie.
Erin Hills, however, was not afforded the same benefit of the doubt, just as there will those who will contend that Grace’s 62 is somehow less impressive because of the perfect conditions or the advantage of the modern power game.
There’s no room in the history books for small print or footnotes, only facts, and the facts are rather clear on this – Branden Grace became the first player to ever shoot a 62 in a men’s major. Nothing more, nothing less.