Not even an amazing grace could end Southern Africa’s wait
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – IT started with a promising four-under par round by Charl Schwartzel, who found himself just one adrift of the leading American trio, and was spiced by an historic 62 third round score by Branden Grace but, for the 20th straight major golf championship, Southern Africa’s elite golfers came short in their hunt for the Holy Grail.
Back at the British Open where one of them, Ernie Els, lasted tasted success in 2012, there was hope for the Southern African stars to finally end a barren five-year campaign to return to the winners’ podium in a tournament where there was no clear-cut favourite.
And 2011 US Masters winner, Schwartzel, provided a ray of hope with a four-under par 66 in the first round of the British Open at Liverpool’s Royal Birkdale which saw him trail the leading trio of eventual winner Jordan Spieth, runner-up Matt Kuchar and Brooks Koepka who opened with five-under 65s.
But, as has always been the case with the Southern African golfers, of late, his challenge wilted the following day when he shot an eight-over par 78 before closing with identical scores of 71 to finish tied 62nd and taking home US$24 500 for his efforts.
Els, the last golfer from this part of the world to win a major when he captured the British Open in 2012, finished at five-over par, just one stroke better than his countryman Schwartzel, in 61st place and a pay cheque of US$25 000.
Grace, who is yet to win a major, was the best of the lot and, on Saturday, he was the toast of the game after becoming the first golfer in the history of the game to put together a magical round of 62.
In the end, he finished tied sixth on four-under par, and having an extra US$281 000 in his bank account, and while he might not have left Royal Birkdale with the prestigious claret jug that goes to the winner, he left with a proud record.
Prior to his bogey-free 62 on Saturday, the golf world had seen 31 rounds of 63 in Majors, the last one coming at last month’s US Open when Justin Thomas found a way to tame the course in that tournament.
But no one had ever put together a round of 62.
How do we put that into context?
Well, the first major golf championship, the British Open, was played in 1860 at the Prestwick Golf Club in Prestwick, South Ayrshire, Scotland and a Scotsman, Willie Park Senior, won the tournament that year.
This means that, when one takes away 1871 when the British Open – which was the only major golf championship back then – was not played; 1918, when none of the majors were played because of World War II and in 1943 when World War II elbowed all the majors from the radar, Grace did something that hadn’t been done in 157 years.
It was also something that hadn’t been done 145 times, before this British Open, and something that hadn’t been done in 420 major golf championships.
Something which the greatest players who have played this game – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Byron Nelson, Seve Ballestros, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palme and Sam Snead – had tried and failed to do before.
Incredibly, Grace said he didn’t know what he had achieved given that he was under-eight and, usually, that means 64 and not 62 as was the case at Royal Birkdale.
“I think it helps I didn’t know. It was a special round from the start and I just wanted to make more birdies,’’ he told reporters.
“I wasn’t aware of it! My caddie said ‘congrats, it’s in the history books’ and I had no idea! It makes it even more special now to be in the history books.
“You can see from my reaction I didn’t know what was going on. I was just so in the zone of playing, hole after hole. 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 28-year-old Grace birdied the 14th, 16th and 17th holes on Saturday in a whirlwind finish for his record score.
“I played flawlessly from tee to green and I made some great putts,” he told Golfweek.
But golf fans in this part of the world must be wondering what their favourite players need to do to clear the final hurdle and win a major championship.
It never used to be like this in the past.
After all, Trevor Immelman won the Masters in 2008, Schwartzel won the same green jacket three years later, Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open in 2010 and Els won the Open again in 2012.
Retief Goosen won the US Open in 2004, for good measure.
South African golfers have won 22 major golf championships and only the Americans, with 266, Scotland with 55 and England with 35, have won more while Zimbabwe has three major titles under her belt, better than Canada, New Zealand, France and Wales.
For now, the wait for golf fans to see a Southern African golfer winning a major golf championship rumbles on.