Some numbers endure as the standard of excellence in a particular sport. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. The 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect season. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. In golf, we have a record of 18 major championship victories. But for a single round, it is hard to overlook the brilliance of ’s the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf equaled Miller’s score in the first round of the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, and did the same in the second round of the 2003 championship at Olympia Fields, but no one has surpassed his mark. If you factor in the circumstances under which Miller accomplished the feat – in the final round to win the championship by one stroke – and the way in which he did it – hitting all 18 greens in regulation – you have arguably the greatest round of golf played in the game’s history.
Miller was no stranger to shooting low numbers. He broke course records at Phoenix Country Club during the 1970 Phoenix Open, where he shot 61, as well as at Tamarisk during the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, where he shot 63. By mid-1973, Miller had gone low with single rounds of 65 or lower 11 times, with four of those rounds coming in the first half of 1973 alone.
Miller was born and raised in San Francisco and at age 5 was taught to play the game by his father, Laurence, who constructed a practice area in the family basement, where Johnny pounded balls with a cut-down club into a canvas tarp for hours each day. In 1963, as a teenager, he became a junior member at The Olympic Club, and he won the U.S. Junior Amateur the following year, before enrolling at Brigham Young University. With the 1966 U.S. Open being held at his home course, the 19-year-old Miller made it into the field as an alternate and finished the four rounds at The Olympic Club tied for eighth.
Coming into the 1973 U.S. Open, Miller had claimed just two victories in four years on the PGA Tour, but he had performed well in major championships. He finished runner-up in the 1970 Masters and recorded top-10 finishes in the 1971 and 1972 U.S. Opens. In 1973, Miller had eight top 10s to his record, including a tie for sixth at the Masters. He came into the U.S. Open at Oakmont brimming with confidence.
“I had heard a lot about the fearsome greens and bunkers of Oakmont,” said Miller, “but I thought the course suited me as much as anyone else. To win there, I believed you had to drive it straight, hit high iron shots and putt fast greens well. I considered these my three strongest suits.”
Miller played his first two rounds with Arnold Palmer, who attracted massive galleries at any event. But “Arnie’s Army” was especially large at Oakmont because the course was close to The King’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa. Palmer had not won a major championship since 1964, but he had led for a good portion of the previous U.S. Open held at Oakmont, in 1962, before being defeated by a 22-year-old rookie by the name of Jack Nicklaus.
And with Palmer’s third-place finish in the 1972 U.S. Open still fresh in everyone’s memory, along with one tournament victory in 1973, Arnie’s Army was hoping the 43-year-old could summon one last charge.
“In those days, Arnold Palmer was a rock star,” said Miller. “Everybody was following him and in some ways it was a difficult experience because if he made a putt, the gallery didn’t exactly stick around to watch me putt. They liked me alright, but they loved Arnie. To be paired together and both play well – that’s what I remember about the U.S. Open almost as much as the the final round.”
The course itself played just a bit longer than in 1962. But 33 bunkers had been added, bringing the total to 187. Despite a rainy spring that softened conditions, the course seemed primed to play as difficult as ever. In fact, the USGA asked Oakmont to widen two of its fairways from everyday play.
In the first round, Oakmont lived up to its billing. Gary Player, the 1965 champion, led the field with a 4-under 67, but no one else broke 70 on Thursday. Though Player was one of the leading players in the game in the early 1970s, his position at the front of the field was somewhat surprising given that he had been hospitalized for 12 days in February for emergency bladder surgery. He had played in just three tournaments in the previous five months and was below his normal weight, yet he paced the field by three strokes over Lee Trevino, Jim Colbert and Ray Floyd.
Then something happened overnight to make Oakmont a different course on Friday. Despite no rain, the greens that were firm and fast on Thursday had become soft and accessible. Players abandoned their conservative strategies in favor of firing at flagsticks. Gene Borek, a club professional from Long Island who got into the field as an alternate, shot 65 and broke the course record in the morning. Altogether, 19 players broke par, including reigning U.S. Amateur champion Vinny Giles, who holed a 6-iron for eagle at the par-4 15th and converted short birdie putts at 17 and 18 for a 2-3-3-3 finish to shoot 69.
Exactly what happened was never made clear, but in all likelihood the overnight sprinklers were allowed to run longer than they should have, altering the track of the championship. “Let’s just say the greens are softer than I would like to see them,” said P.J. Boatwright, the executive director of the USGA. “They won’t be watered tonight.”
Though scores had improved across the board, some players agreed with Boatwright. “I personally would like to see the greens as hard as a table and just as fast,” said Nicklaus, the defending champion. “Then I don’t think very many players could handle them.”
Player still led at 137 with Colbert one stroke behind. Miller and Nicklaus were tied for third with at 140.
After a rainstorm further saturated the course on Saturday morning, the leader board became bunched at the top. Player’s game collapsed with a 77, but when the dust cleared after 54 holes, four shared the lead at 210: Palmer, Jerry Heard, John Schlee and 53-year-old Julius Boros, a two-time U.S. Open champion. Tom Weiskopf, who had won tournaments in three of the previous five weeks, was one stroke back.
Miller, meanwhile, fell into a tie for 13th, six strokes off the lead, after he forgot his yardage book in his hotel room. He made three bogeys and a double bogey over the first six holes. “My iron game was very precise and I could usually get within a couple feet of my yardage, but without my book I was just guessing out there and, psychologically, that really threw me for a loop,” said Miller.
While taking out his frustration at the driving range after his round, Miller heard a voice tell him to alter his stance. “I was trying to figure out some little key and a pretty clear voice – it wasn’t audible but I could hear it in my head – said, ‘Open your stance way up.’” After hitting several shots, Miller found that the tactic helped him shorten his backswing and play a controlled fade. But even with his yardage book in hand and a revitalized swing, Miller still didn’t like his chances on Sunday morning.
“I was six shots out of the lead and all the greatest players were ahead of me: Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino and Weiskopf,” said Miller. “I didn’t think I had any chance to win when I teed off that final day.”
In fact, before he left for the course, Miller told his wife, Linda, to make sure their bags were packed so they could leave quickly after he finished his round.
Many people thought a historic comeback could be in store on Sunday, but most eyes were on another power hitter with long, blond hair. Two months earlier, Nicklaus had started the final round at Augusta eight strokes off the lead but closed with a 66 to challenge the leaders. He finished in a tie for third, two strokes behind winner Tommy Aaron. This time, however, his deficit was only four strokes. When he arrived at Oakmont on Sunday wearing a grim, determined look and started out par-birdie, it appeared the charge was on. Nicklaus, however, could not string together enough birdies. Though his 68 was the third-lowest round of the day, it was overshadowed by Miller’s brilliance.
Teeing off an hour before the leaders in the eighth-to-last group, Miller birdied his first four holes to move into red figures. “For the first time it occurred to me that I could win,” said Miller, after his fourth consecutive birdie. After three pars, he three-putted the par-3 eighth for bogey to go back to even. “I went from being nervous to semi-mad,” said Miller. “That kind of got me focused again. I told myself, ‘If you’re going to win the U.S. Open, you can’t be nervous, so let’s put the hammer down.’”
He proceeded to birdie the ninth, 11th, 12th and 13th holes to pull into a share of the lead at 4 under. As he played the 453-yard, par-4 15th, Miller was tied with Palmer, Boros and Weiskopf. He struck a 4-iron to a few feet and sank the birdie putt to take the outright lead for the first time. He parred the final three holes for an 8-under 63.
Unaware of Miller’s run, Palmer thought he was in control of the championship. He missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 11th but hit what he thought was a perfect drive on the par-5 12th. Walking down the fairway, he finally saw the leader board and noticed that Miller was 5 under. Instead of being ahead, as he thought he was, Palmer was in fact trailing by one stroke. To make matters worse, Palmer’s ball had taken a bad kick to the left and settled in some heavy rough. He bogeyed the 12th, 13th and 14th holes and was never again in contention. Schlee was the only player on the course with a chance to tie Miller, but when his 40-foot birdie chip on the 72nd hole slid past to the left, Miller was the U.S. Open champion.
While it can be argued that Miller’s 63 was not played under the most challenging conditions, the facts are clear. Only four of the other 65 players in the field broke 70 on Sunday. Miller hit all 18 greens in regulation and took only 29 putts, including a three-putt. Ten of his approach shots finished within 20 feet of the hole, with five of them finishing 10 feet or closer. His scorecard did not contain a single 5. Seven of the players that Miller passed on Sunday – Palmer, Boros, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player, Littler and Charles – had combined for 35 major championships at that time.
“It was definitely no fluke,” said Miller Barber, his playing partner during the round. “It was just an excellent round of golf. Everything he hit was right at the flag. He lipped out a few putts too. It very easily could have been a 60."
Miller’s spectacular play in the early 1970s drew comparisons with Bob Jones and Nicklaus. In 1975, Newsweek anointed him “Golf ’s New Golden Boy.” He won 15 tournaments between 1974 and 1976, including his second major championship title at the 1976 British Open. While Miller struggled with his putter in the late 1970s, he won several more events in the early 1980s before capping off his competitive career with a victory in the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at age 47 while in semi-retirement. As a broadcaster, Miller has watched several extraordinary finishes in the U.S. Open over the past two decades, but none quite as impressive as his 63 at Oakmont – a round still remembered as one of the greatest in major-championship history.
Michael Trostel is the director of the USGA Museum.