No one has surpassed Johnny Miller's 1973 round of 63 in a major. Some think U.S. Open courses became more difficult as a result.
By BOB HARIG
Published June 8, 2003
Golf fans know him as the game's most candid commentator, an announcer who has no problem shooting straight with the viewers. In fact, Johnny Miller did the same on the golf course as a player.
Miller will be in the NBC/ESPN broadcast booth this week, giving his frank opinions on the happenings at Olympia Fields Country Club outside Chicago, site of the 103rd U.S. Open.
For more than a decade, Miller has worked the Open telecasts for NBC, but he has a much stronger tie to America's national golf championship.
He won the tournament 30 years ago and set a hallowed record in the process.
The round remains one of the most impressive in golf, and it was accomplished on one of the country's finest and most feared courses. That it occurred during the final round of a major championship makes it all the more phenomenal. And it still reverberates throughout the championship, at least in the minds of some.
"It was the most routine 63 you could ever imagine," Miller said.
Sixty-three? In the U.S. Open?
Miller's 8-under-par effort on the par-71 Oakmont Country Club course in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open was the stuff of legend. And it is the reason, some believe, the United States Golf Association sets up its Open venues so tough - to keep it from happening again.
Only Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf in the first round of the 1980 Open at Baltusrol, a par-70 course, have matched Miller's 63 in an Open. No player has shot lower than that score in a major championship.
"My final round had more repercussions for the USGA than any other round in history," Miller said. "The next year was off the charts. I guess they really took a lot of flak. I sure took flak from a lot of players, blaming me."
Miller followed his U.S. Open victory by winning eight PGA Tour events in 1974 and four in 1975, including a 14-shot victory at Phoenix. He added the 1976 British Open for his second and last major championship. Coincidence or not, when the Open went to Winged Foot in 1974, Hale Irwin's winning score was 7-over 287, and the tournament was dubbed the "Massacre at Winged Foot." There have been just seven winning totals in relation to Miller's 5 under since his victory, and one of those came from Tiger Woods in 2000, when he won by 15. Miller, now 56, entered the final round in '73 six shots behind the leaders and tied for 13th. Playing with Arnold Palmer in the third round, he shot 76. Palmer, an overwhelming crowd favorite in his home state of Pennsylvania, shot 68 and was tied for the lead with Jerry Heard, Julius Boros and John Schlee. Few, if any, gave Miller a chance. He teed off more than an hour before the leaders and seemingly had too many players to pass.
But Miller birdied the first four holes.
"I had three tap-ins and a 20-footer," Miller said. "The first four holes are the four toughest holes you'll ever see, and I knew the leaders would be doing a little bit of choking as they always do on the last day of the U.S. Open. I knew in a worst-case scenario I was probably two (shots) back, and there was a good chance I might be one back or tied for the lead. From then on I was pretty nervous."
Miller three-putted for bogey at the eighth hole, but came back with a two-putt birdie at the ninth. He went on another run starting at the 11th, making three straight birdies.
He birdied the par-4 15th, then lipped out birdie putts on the 17th and 18th that could have given him a 61 or 62. He settled for 63 and "the best round I've ever played in my life," he said.
"It's hard to judge if it's the best round ever," said Miller, who won 25 PGA Tour events.
"On the surface, that's it. The lowest, supposedly America's toughest course, against a great field."
Miller was the leader, but had to wait for the others to come in. Palmer bogeyed three straight at one point and finished tied for fourth. Schlee ended up a shot behind.
Though rain had softened the course considerably and the rough was not as high as expected, Miller's 63 was one of two sub-70 scores on the final day among those in the lead. Jack Nicklaus had 68. For the tournament, there were 24 rounds in the 60s.
Did it lead to a toughening of U.S. Open courses? The next year when conditions were brutal, everyone figured it was because of Miller. USGA officials always have scoffed at that notion.
"What typically happens at the U.S. Open when it's close, it's sort of the last man standing," said Fred Ridley, a USGA vice president who is a member of the executive committee that helps determine course setup. "If you recall at Oakmont, Miller came from way out of the pack, like Palmer did in '60 at Cherry Hills. There are times you'll see those kind of rounds at the Open, when a guy is free-wheeling it.
"I really don't think the course setup is any more difficult, except for the narrowing of fairways. That's where things are heading. You've seen more of that, a significant increase in green speed. ... There could be some unintended consequences - and I'm not even sure if that's right - in basically addressing the issues of additional distance that has been created over the years. The net effect may be that the difficulty has gone up."
Because of one man?
103RD U.S. OPEN
WHEN/WHERE: Thursday-Sunday; Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, North Course.
COURSE: 7,190 yards, par 70.
PURSE: $6-million, $1.08-million to the winner.
TV: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. ESPN, 3-5 p.m. Ch. 8, 5-7 p.m. ESPN Thursday-Friday and 1:30-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday Ch. 8. If necessary, an 18-hole playoff would be played June 16.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Tiger Woods.
LAST YEAR: Woods led from start to finish at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., winning by three over Phil Mickelson. Woods was the only player to complete 72 holes under par.
LAST OPEN AT OLYMPIA FIELDS: In 1928, Johnny Farrell defeated legendary amateur Bobby Jones by one stroke after a 36-hole playoff. They finished 72 holes at 10-over 294, with Farrell shooting 70-73 in a playoff.