At the time, no one knew quite what to make of Johnny Miller or his final-round 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open. He was a 26-year-old string bean...
At the time, no one knew quite what to make of Johnny Miller or his final-round 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open.
He was a 26-year-old string bean with two victories on the PGA Tour when he unleashed a birdie barrage at Oakmont Country Club the likes of which had not been seen in United States Golf Association history.
Initially considered a fluke, Miller’s magical 63 continues to grow in stature with the passing of time.
With the Open returning to Oakmont in suburban Pittsburgh this week, and through the prism of 34 years, it’s a good time to revisit what is regarded as the greatest final round in major championship history.
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The 63 not only enabled Miller to come from six shots back to win by one, but he vaulted past many of the top players of the day, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.
“The round [David] Duval shot at the Hope was darn near flawless tee to green,” Miller said in a telephone interview, referring to Duval’s final-round 59 at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. “But it was the Bob Hope and it wasn’t against Arnold Palmer.”
The players who tee it up at Oakmont beginning Thursday still have to deal with the repercussions of Miller’s 63. Embarrassed by the score on what was and still is considered the toughest golf course in America, the USGA reacted by changing its setups for the Open.
Facts and figures
Field: 156 players (147 professionals, nine amateurs)
Defending champion: Geoff Ogilvy
Tale of the Tape: The 667-yard 12th hole at Oakmont is the longest in major championship history.
Noteworthy: Oakmont is only 301 yards longer than when it first held the U.S. Open in 1927.
Quoteworthy: “U.S. Opens are the least fun tournaments. There is nothing fun about it.” — Paul Azinger
Key statistic: Foreign-born players have won the last three U.S. Open titles, the longest streak since World War I.
The next year, players were greeted by shin-high rough in the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” Hale Irwin won with a 7-over par total.
In the ensuing years, tangled rough, pinched fairways and scalped greens have become Open staples. Since Miller savaged Oakmont’s reputation, the average winning score is 3.1 under par.
Miller, an NBC golf analyst, was an afterthought on Sunday morning in ’73. He had struggled to a 76 in the third round and was in 12th place.
“I had no idea and no feeling that I had any chance whatsoever,” he said.
The leaders were oblivious to him when he teed off at 1:36 p.m. He hit iron approaches to within 5 feet on Nos. 1 and 2 for easy birdies, rolled in a 25-footer on No. 3 and then nearly holed out for eagle from a greenside bunker on the par-5 fourth, tapping in for a fourth consecutive birdie.
Miller birdied Nos. 9, 11, 12 and 13, missed a 12-footer on No. 14 and then made a 10-footer on No. 15.
He was in the lead.
“The scoreboards weren’t very good in those days and my name was at the bottom,” Miller said. “When I was walking up 18, Palmer was walking off 11 and he didn’t realize he wasn’t leading the U.S. Open anymore.
“John Schlee [Palmer's playing partner] said, ‘Geez, look at Miller.’ Palmer said, ‘Where the [expletive] did he come from?’ It was a shock to Arnold, a real shocker.”
Miller barely missed a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 17 and his 25-footer on No. 18 lipped out. No matter. He had shot a 63, the best score in U.S. Open history, and would beat Schlee by one.
Miller hit all 18 greens in regulation and needed just 29 putts. Ten of his approach shots finished within 10 feet of the cup.
“It was the greatest ball-striking round I’ve ever seen and I’ve been around a little bit,” he said. “It was a magical round. It was one easy 63, is all I can tell you.”
The U.S. Open returned to Oakmont in 1983, when Larry Nelson won with a superb closing 65, and in ’94, when Ernie Els won in a playoff.
Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Vijay Singh have since shot 63s in the Open, but only Miller has done it in the final round.
“It’s stood an awful long time and through some pretty easy courses [such as] Baltusrol and Olympia Fields,” Miller said. “Even if somebody shoots a 62 or a 61 I’m cool with it.
“Because how many times do you see somebody shoot a 63 on the last day of the U.S. Open to win by one?”