Miracle at Oakmont: The 1973 U.S. Open
Johnny Miller is now judged on his commentary on NBC’s Golf Coverage. His willingness to criticize modern players is legendary, but what many forget is that Johnny Miller earned that seat when he shot the greatest round in Championship Golf history.
Oakmont in rural Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh, is still considered one of the top ten Golf Courses in the world (currently rated 8th by Golf Magazine). The winners at Oakmont are legends in the game.
Tommy Armour defeated Harry Cooper in the first one in 1927 in an 18 hole playoff after they had tied at 13 over par after 72 holes. The next time Oakmont hosted The Open was in 1935 when Sam Parks Jr. won at 11 over par, only three rounds were played under par in the entire tournament.
Oakmont’s next time up was in 1953 when Ben Hogan won at 5 under par, the second of his three consecutive majors. He won the Masters by 5 strokes and The British by 4, with his U.S. Open 6 stroke win in the middle (The British and PGA over-lapped, so he couldn’t play all four). Many still consider Hogan’s run in 1953 as the greatest year in golf ever.
Then in 1962 a local hero and the World’s #1, Arnold Palmer lost to a 22-year-old kid named Jack Nicklaus in a 18 hole playoff after both finished 72 holes at one under par.
That takes us to 1973. The Leaderboard over the first three rounds was the who’s who of 1960s-1970s golf. Gary Player opened with seven birdies on his first eleven holes, but a double bogey late in the round stopped his momentum, he still held the first-round lead at 4 under. Jack Nicklaus rallied late with an eagle on 17 to finish even par. Lee Trevino was sitting at 1 under, with Arnold Palmer matching Nicklaus’s 71. Between the four of them, they would win 39 major championships, and all four would stay in the hunt until Sunday. Nobody cared, but 26-year-old Johnny Miller shot an even par 71.
Day two saw Player struggle, but his putter kept saving him and he shot a 1 under 70 to remain the leader by one shot. Nicklaus was three behind after a second round 69, while Trevino and Palmer were tied at even par 142. They were joined at 142 by the hottest player on tour, Tom Weiskopf and 53-year-old Julius Boros. Miller shot 2 under par 69 to be in the hunt, tied with Nicklaus.
Saturday was moving day. The big movers were the 53-year-old Boros and the 43-year-old Palmer. Both shooting 68 to tie for the 54-hole lead at 3 under par 210. Weiskopf shot another 69, while Trevino carded another 70 to end round one 2 strokes behind with 18 holes to play. Others also moved, but unfortunately, they were going backwards. Player shot 77, Nicklaus an uninspired 74, and Miller apparently played himself out of the tournament with an ugly 76. This left Miller in 13th place at 3 over par 216, six strokes behind the four leaders. Boros and Palmer were joined on top of leader-board by 27-year-old Californian Jerry Heard, and Journeyman Pro John Schlee.
Miller, teeing off about an hour before the players really competing for the championship, hit a 3-iron to five feet to birdie number one, came back with another precise iron for a tap in birdie on number 2. When he drained a 25-foot birdie putt on 3, for his third straight birdie, suddenly he was even par, and only 3 strokes behind the leaders. A two-putt birdie on the par 5 fourth hole and Miller was in red numbers. He then had three straight routine 2-putt pars on 5, 6, and 7. He missed the green on Number 8, took 3 to get down, for a bogey 4, which left him at even par four strokes out of the lead, now held alone by Arnold Palmer.
A 2-putt birdie on the par 5 ninth got him back to 1 under after a front nine 32. Many consider Miller the greatest iron player ever, and the back 9 on that day his forte was on full display. Two putts for par on 10, followed by a wedge to 14 feet and birdie on 11. When he hit 4-irons to 15 feet and 5 feet on 12 and 13 he was suddenly tied with Palmer!
A wedge and 2 putts for par on 14, then a 4-iron to 10 feet and birdie on 15 and Johnny Miller was leading the U.S. Open with 3 holes to play. Three routine pars coming in and Miller posted 5-under par 279 and dared the field to catch him.
Palmer faded late, finishing at 2 under par, Nicklaus could never get going, also finishing at 2 under 282, along with Lee Trevino. Boros was an impressive 1 under 283, while Gary Player was no where to be seen on Sunday. As close as anyone could get was John Schlee who birdied 16 to get to 4 under but parred the last two holes to finish one behind at 280. It was left to Tom Weiskopf to sum up the tournament (he finished third at 281). “Johnny Miller? I didn’t even know Miller made the cut.”
Miller had two career PGA wins entering that U.S. Open, but he would go on to a Hall of Fame Career, most visible by some overwhelming victories. 14 Strokes at Phoenix in 1975, 9 strokes a week later in Tucson, 8 strokes at the Kaiser International in his hometown of Napa, California in 1974. Don’t think that he was blowing away weak fields, in his 8-stroke win at the Kaiser, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper finished tied for second. And the second most important of his 25 career wins was a 6 shot victory at the British Open in 1976 at Royal Birkdale. Who were the two that tied for second six strokes behind him? Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus, not bad competitors to beat.
He is best known, of course for one round, the single greatest round in Championship Golf. A 63 at the hallowed course known as Oakmont. Sports Illustrated cover on June 25, 1973 says it all, “63 MILLER’S MIRACLE 63”