Tour and News

Johnny Miller remembers the day he shot 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont

Photo: AP

Miller says that playing with Arnold Palmer for the first two rounds help pave the way for his magical Sunday.

There were some omens that week—some mystical stuff happening. Before a practice round, I found a letter in my locker, but with no name or return address. It said, “You’re gonna win the U.S. Open.” Then later a woman came up to me and said, “I predict things, and I’m never wrong. You’re gonna win the U.S. Open.” I said, “Well, thanks,” but it was in one ear and out the other.

I’m paired with Arnold Palmer for the first two rounds. Playing with Mr. Pennsylvania at Oakmont in 1973 was an honor but also a challenge. Talk about chaos. If he made a 15-footer, the gallery didn’t stick around to watch my 10-footer. And he was in the hunt, so his Army was going crazy. Playing with Palmer there was harder than playing with Tiger today, but it prepared me for the pressure of Sunday.

Arnie and I were on the 36th hole. I drive into the rough and end up with a downhill hooking 12-footer for par that I made. As we’re walking off, Arnie says, “That was some great puttin’, son.” I thought, “Wow, no one ever compliments my putting.” He didn’t know that I’d actually mis-read the putt but accidentally pushed it perfectly into the hole. It was that kind of week.

I was three off the lead after 36. I kept seeing that lady. She’d say, “You’re going fine. You’re gonna win.” I’m thinking that maybe she’s right, and maybe the person who left that letter was right. Maybe I am gonna win the U.S. Open.

Then comes Saturday. I get to the course, and I’d left my yardage book on my nightstand. I went crazy, because my iron game was very precise, and if there are any greens in the world where one or two yards means the difference between birdie and bogey, it’s Oakmont’s. To make things worse, back then the USGA said that you couldn’t bring your regular caddie [to the Open], and I had a guy on my bag who’d literally never caddied for someone who’d broken 90, so he wasn’t much help. I don’t know who at the USGA came up with that rule.

I was 6-over through eight holes [on Saturday]. I was falling apart. I eagled the ninth and somehow shot a [5-over-par] 76. And that lady? She wasn’t there. I went looking for her. I wanted to tell her, “You were wrong! I blew it!”

“Crestfallen” is a strong word, but I was really disappointed that Sunday morning. I was going through the motions on the practice tee. Looking at the leaderboard, I’m six strokes back, and you had names like Tom Weiskopf, Julius Boros, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino up there. It wasn’t like I had to catch Duffy Waldorf—everybody and their dog was ahead of me. I felt like I had no chance. On the range, I had a few balls left when I hear this voice say, “Open your stance way up.” The voice was so clear—I was startled. I opened my stance and hit the last three or four balls pretty good, and I walk to the first tee, thinking, “Do I really want to try that tip on Sunday at the U.S. Open?” But I figured I was out of it, so what the heck.

On No. 1, I hit a 5-iron to five feet. On No. 2, I hit an 8-iron to six inches. Then I make a 15-footer on No. 3 and almost eagle No. 4. So I’m 4-under after four holes. That little voice has always been good to me.

After four holes, I think, “Geez, I’m only two or three back, and leaders tend to choke on Sunday, so I’m right in this!” I knew I had a great shot, and that made the hair on my neck stand up. I got a little chokey. I started leaving putts short, and after a perfect 4-wood on the par-3 eighth, I three-putted from 16 feet.

That bogey on No. 8 was a wakeup call. I went from nervous to ticked off. It settled me down. My feeling from then on was total confidence. I could place the ball wherever I wanted, like I was in a dream. I hit every green in regulation, missed one fairway, and my average iron was three feet off line from where I was aiming. If Hogan had been my caddie, he would have said, “Are you kiddin’ me?”

I could not wait to hit my next iron, because I knew I was gonna knock everything on the green. I only played [my approach shot] away from the flag twice all day. The rest of the time I was flag-hunting. And I hadn’t even been playing that well the first three days. Just so-so. This was the round out of nowhere.

When I got to the [par-4] 18th, I hit the longest drive of the day by anyone. Then I hit a 5-iron to the back-right hole that wasn’t more than an inch off line, but my ball got held up on a tier on the green, or else it would have been a tap-in for 62. Instead, my putt for 62 lipped out. I was the first player ever to shoot 63 in the final round of a major.

I finished up, and Arnie had a four-footer for birdie on No. 11—a tough, curling putt. He missed. There’s a huge groan from the gallery. I lead him by one. I later hear that he walks to the 12th tee and on the leaderboard he sees “J. Miller” and says, “Where the blankety-blank did he come from?”

When Arnie missed that birdie putt on No. 11, it was clear: He couldn’t catch me. He couldn’t shoot 1-under to tie me or 2-under to beat me—not at Oakmont under U.S. Open pressure. Nobody could. I knew I was going to win. When I was a little boy, my dad would say, “You’re gonna win the Open someday, champ.” And I’d done it.

I was on Cloud 9, but there was no private jet waiting for me. I flew commercial the next day, and on the plane people were going nuts. Sports Illustrated called it “The Miracle at Oakmont.” Some people said it was lucky. They didn’t want to accept me as the player I had become. But I had gone from being one of the game’s young lions to something more.

I’ve seen a lot of good rounds. But from tee to green that was the best round I’ve ever seen, and it was mine. The next week, [seven-time Tour winner] Bert Yancey said to me, “Son, you’re now the U.S. Open champion. Act like one.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I took his admonition to heart. Act like a champion. Don’t be flippant. Don’t complain about conditions. Give 100 percent on every shot. Play to win. The next year, I won eight times.

Shooting 63 in a major has been done. To do it 
 in the last round of the U.S. Open and win by one, at Oakmont—the hardest course in America—was something special.

At the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, the USGA said that the tough setup wasn’t because of my 63 the year before, but obviously that wasn’t true. The rough was nine inches tall. On average at a U.S. Open, you can hit a shot from the rough about 140 yards. At Winged Foot that year, you could hit it about 90 yards. It’s the toughest rough I’ve ever seen, then or now. Hale Irwin won at 7-over and in perfect weather. I took abuse from players for years. They blamed me for the conditions. Guys would say, “Thanks a lot for that stinkin’ 63, Miller!” Geez, sorry, guys!

[Journalist] Dan Jenkins said that my 63 wasn’t any better than those turned in by Weiskopf or Nicklaus, who both shot 63 at Baltusrol in 1980. But they did it in the first round at a course where a lot of records have been set, and I did mine in the last round at Oakmont to overtake all these Hall of Fame players. So I don’t know what Dan was smoking.

In 2000, Golf Magazine had a special issue that looked back at the 20th century in golf. It featured Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, and all the greats. And I won for the greatest round of the century. Maybe it was the best round ever. I’m 65. I’ve done some cool things in golf. And this was my signature moment.

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