Some call Johnny Miller's final round at the 1973 U.S. Open the greatest ever played. Miller hit every green in regulation, shot an eight-under-par 63 and stormed from six shots back to win. This was Oakmont, mighty Oakmont, America's toughest track and its toughest tournament. It was the first 63 in major championship history.
Forty years later 63 is still the gold standard, though the score is no longer quite so outrageous or remarkably rare. Since Miller Time, two dozen 63s have been shot in major championships, by 22 players. And within 13 years of Miller's feat, the other three majors had also yielded at least one 63.
Many have sniffed 62, including Miller, who three-putted the 8th green at Oakmont and was the victim of harsh birdie lip-outs on the last two holes. Miller Barber, who was paired with Miller, said later, "It very easily could've been 60."
Miller agrees. "It's not like I ran the table, chipped in, holed bunker shots and made 60-foot putts," he says. "It was sort of an easy 63. It can be done, is what I'm trying to say. It's just hard to get to 62 under the pressure of a major. Guys get close, maybe get to six under par through 12 holes and then sort of drop anchor."
Some believe the record will fall at Merion, next week's Open venue. At 6,996 yards, Merion is the first Open course shorter than 7,000 yards since Shinnecock Hills in 2004.
Here's why the record hasn't fallen, why it might fall at Merion — and why it probably won't.
A lot has changed in four decades: big-headed metal drivers, high-launch three-woods that carry 280 yards, high-tech composite shafts, square grooves and 64° sand wedges; balls that fly longer and straighter than ever imagined; triplex mowers; nonmetal spikes. In a drastic evolutionary change, golfers even discovered weight training regimens that don't involve arm curls attached to 12-ounce cans.
"I don't expect it to last long," Nick Price said in '86 after his masterly round at Augusta National. "So many guys hit it so much farther than I do. I didn't even reach any of the par-5 holes in two."
Reminded recently of his prediction, Price could only laugh. "Well, Augusta National adjusted its course for the modern equipment and most of the other majors have done the same," he says.
Hootie Johnson, the since-retired Masters chairman, was ahead of the curve when he put more bite into Augusta National in 2002 and '06, adding a first cut of rough and pine trees as well as lengthening many holes. It was called "Tiger-proofing," but it was more like preemptive technology-proofing. Championship courses had to keep up with big improvements in golf equipment. Most of Johnson's changes, once viewed as controversial, now seem prescient. (Greg Norman was the last to shoot 63 at Augusta, in 1996.)
"The equipment is better, but the courses are so much tougher too," says Michael Bradley, who shot 63 at the 1995 PGA. "They're majors for a reason. They're not normal events. If you're on a roll, it's not like trying to shoot 59 in a regular Tour event. You're gunning for history."
Millions are spent updating (read: lengthening) major championship sites. This is a new age where 500-yard par-4s aren't unreasonable. On Sunday at the 2007 Open, the par-3 8th at Oakmont measured 300 yards. Tour players barely blink. The setup — narrower fairways, longer rough and firmer and faster greens — has become a course's best defense.
Maybe the psychology of the record has prevented a 62. The four-minute mile was a similar mental obstacle until Roger Bannister finally broke it. Then everyone wondered what all the fuss had been about.
"Every guy on Tour knows about 63s," Miller says. "There is a historical barrier there. The more you think about it, the harder it is to do."
Jeff Sluman's first PGA Tour win came at the 1988 PGA. "You get it going in a major, and you're more aware of it," he says. "The reality that, Hey, I've got a chance to do something nobody else has ever done, has more to do with it than anything."
Lanny Wadkins, the 1977 PGA champion and a World Golf Hall of Famer, agrees. "The anxiety of being way under par in a major can make you go, Whoa!" he says.
Why This Might Be the Week
"The USGA is really worried about Merion," Miller says. "The only thing sort of holding Merion up are those three long par-3s. If a guy gets hot with his wedges and starts making putts, look out. The players have to be precise, though, and the new guys are not quite as precise in their shotmaking. They're more like, bombs away. I could see Tiger doing it. He hits shorter clubs off the tees, picks his spots and thinks his way around."
Merion is a par-70 with an odd combination of very short and very long holes. It has four potentially drivable par-4s (1, 7, 8 and 10) but three par-3s in excess of 230 yards. If all goes as planned, defending champion Webb Simpson figures he'll hit wedge into nine of the first 13 greens. The last five holes, however, are brutes. Out-of-bounds lurks on a number of holes.
"They lengthened the long holes but didn't do anything to the short holes," says Wadkins. "You may not hit a six-iron or seven-iron all week. But you'll hit a whole bunch of long irons and wedges. There will be some good scores, I think, but not a low total for the week. Merion is going to win. I don't think today's players are as good with short irons as my generation was."
The real reason no one has shot 62 — and why it might not happen at Merion — is quite simple. Major championship courses, Sluman is quick to remind everyone, are just plain hard. And one other thing.
"Apparently," Sluman says with a wry smile, "the golf gods don't want it beaten."
Amen to that.
There have been 25 rounds of 63 (by 23 players) in major championship history, but only Johnny Miller has done it in the fourth round en route to victory.