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The Greatest Round

Not only did Johnny Miller torch Oakmont, he also changed the way the U.S. Open is played, arguably making his 63 ...

June 12, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

Has it really been 30 years since Johnny Miller set the U.S. Open on its ear with an earth-shattering final round of 63 that scorched Oakmont Country Club and changed forever the landscape of major championship golf?

Or does it seem more as if it happened only yesterday?

"Geez, 1973," Miller said. "No, it seems like it's been a pretty long time."

Three decades have passed since 26-year-old Johnny Miller, the lean kid from the Bay Area with the golden locks, plaid slacks, red shirt, can't-miss swing and exaggerated follow-through went out and shot the lowest round in the history of the U.S. Open.

Miller's 63 has since been matched twice, by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf, in the 1980 Open at Baltusrol, but Miller's round was magical. It was the first, the original, the heavyweight champion and the most important, basically because it single-handedly influenced the USGA to tighten the screws for an even greater degree of difficulty in the course setup for every U.S. Open since.

Before 1973, the USGA had long been in the business of making demanding U.S. Open courses, but after Miller unloaded his 63 on Oakmont, the Open layouts should have come with a warning label that they might be dangerous to a player's health. Consider that the next year, at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Hale Irwin's winning score was seven over par.

Besides everything else he got from his 63 -- a U.S. Open record score, his first major title, a slice of history -- Miller says he is also responsible for an unexpected shift in philosophy on the part of the most powerful golf association in the world.

"My final round had more repercussions for the USGA than any other round in history," Miller said. "The next year, [the course] was off the charts. I guess they really took a lot of flak. I sure took a lot of flak from a lot of players, blaming me."

The official stand of the USGA was then and is now to disagree with Miller.

Sandy Tatum, who was the Open committee chairman at Winged Foot, says Miller's 63 had no effect on how the USGA established the course conditions at Winged Foot.

"I was responsible for the setup," Tatum said. "The decisions that were made were mine. Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont had absolutely zero influence on how the course was set up at Winged Foot."

Now, Miller disagrees with Tatum's disagreeing with him about the effects of his 63.

"That's a lie," Miller said of Tatum's comments. "That's the biggest lie he's ever said."

However, the USGA official and chair of the 1973 championship committee who set up the course at Oakmont remembers it the same way as Tatum. Harry Easterly credited Miller with a masterful round of golf, but says that 63 didn't affect the way the USGA did business.

"That was just a phenomenal score for those times," Easterly said. "Oakmont was a very demanding golf course. It was no patsy. I don't remember any sentiment to change the difficulty of the holes the next year. We always put them in the most difficult positions they could be."

Whatever effect Miller's 63 had -- and it's interesting that it's still being debated 30 years later -- there is no doubt of its significance on at least one level. It's arguably the finest round of golf played in the pressure of a last day of a major championship.

Maybe everyone should have seen it coming. Miller was not yet the streaky player who could drop a 61 or a 62 in a regular tour event as easily as sticking a tee in the ground, but he clearly was ready to announce his arrival.

John Lawrence Miller first appeared on golf's radar when he won the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1964. The 1966 U.S. Open was to be held at the Olympic Club, the course on which Miller virtually grew up. Miller was 19, an amateur, and had barely missed qualifying, finishing as first alternate in the field of 156, so he was going to caddie at the Open. But there was a withdrawal and Miller wound up playing instead.

He tied for eighth.

Miller graduated from Brigham Young in 1969, turned pro, picked up his first PGA Tour victory event in 1971 and won again in 1972. He won twice more in 1973 before he showed up at Oakmont, the so-called leader of the Young Thunderbirds -- Lanny Wadkins, Grier Jones, Jerry Heard, Jim Simons and Miller.

The Young Thunderbirds?

"We were all under contract to Ford," Miller explained.

Miller was driven to succeed. To hear him say it, he was made for it.

"I was ready to break out. I really was groomed to be an Open champion as a kid, playing the Olympic Club and at Pebble Beach, San Francisco Golf Club, which could have hosted an Open. Playing courses with little greens, where accuracy is not as important as distance. I was knocking on the door at the Open. I wish I could have won more."

The field was deep and loaded with talent at Oakmont in 1973, with some of golf's greatest players at or near their peak, including Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Weiskopf, Raymond Floyd and Irwin.

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