Why Hasn't Anyone Broken The Record Johnny Miller Set At Oakmont?
Editor's Note: Phil Mickelson shot the 28th 63 in a major championship in the first round of the 2016 British Open.
If you appreciate metaphor, the best one in golf is Charles Price's tightrope: "Tournament golf is when they raise the rope to 60 feet," he wrote. "Championship golf is when they take the net away."
But if you prefer numbers, consider this: Since 1977, there have been 29 scores of 60 or better in regular PGA Tour events (23 60s and six 59s).
In the four major championships each year since 1973, the lowest score—shot 27 28 times—is 63.
In a regular tournament, 63 doesn't get much attention. At the 2014 Humana Challenge, Patrick Reed shot three consecutive 63s. But if that number is shot "when they take the net away," we pay attention.
Forty-three years ago, Johnny Miller fired the first 63 in a major, at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where the championship returns in June. Ever since, no one has done better. Or, as we shall see, as well.
The score of 62 in a major has been threatened numerous times, almost as often by those who ended up not shooting 63 than by those who did. It looked like it might fall in the first round of last year's Masters, when Jordan Spieth was eight under par through 14 holes. But instead of birdieing the par-5 15th, historically the easiest hole at Augusta National, he bogeyed it and finished with a 64. Then at St. Andrews, where fears of the modern game making the Old Course irrelevant have intensified over the past decade, David Lingmerth went out in 29 in the first round. But he came back in 40.
On those occasions where it seemed 63 was certain to be broken, something improbable on the 18th green kept it safe:
▶ In 1980, Jack Nicklaus missed a three-footer for 62 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, telling The New York Times' Dave Anderson last year, "I just totally choked."
▶ In 1986, Greg Norman three-putted from 28 feet at Turnberry in the British Open, missing a five-foot comebacker that also made him the only player to shoot 63 in a major with three bogeys.
▶ On the same hole at Turnberry in 1977, Mark Hayes drove into a pot bunker and missed a six-footer for par.
▶ At the 2013 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Jason Dufner left his 10-footer for birdie two feet short.
▶ Tiger Woods' 18-footer at Southern Hills in the 2007 PGA lipped out so cruelly he said his score was "62½."
▶ Nick Price's 30-footer for birdie at Augusta in 1986 went so far down, going all around the cup, that he surmises "Bobby Jones' hand came up and popped it out."
Of course, in golf, no matter what, the player believes he left something out there. "Someday, someone will birdie every hole for 54 and complain about an eagle putt that didn't go in," says Gary Player, not surprisingly the oldest to shoot 63 when he did it at 48 in the 1984 PGA at Shoal Creek. "I made a helluva lot of birdie putts that day. But the 12-footer I missed at the last stays in my mind."
Even record rounds—maybe especially record rounds—have couldas and shouldas. Only 12 of the 27 63s in majors were achieved without a bogey.
Vijay Singh's 63 in the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields—only he and Norman have achieved the feat twice—included a three-putt from 15 feet and a missed eight-footer on the 17th. In the final round of the 1995 PGA at Riviera, Brad Faxon missed three putts of five feet or less. In the 2010 British Open, Rory McIlroy missed a five-footer for birdie on the Road Hole. Isao Aoki had only 24 putts in shooting eight under at Muirfield in 1980, but they included three missed six-footers for birdies. A month before, playing two groups ahead of Nicklaus in the U.S. Open, Tom Weiskopf didn't birdie either of Baltusrol's closing par 5s in his 63.
Perhaps the player with the least regret is the most recent one to shoot 63 in a major, Hiroshi Iwata, at last year's PGA at Whistling Straits. Iwata shot 29 on his closing nine, playing the last eight holes in seven under par, and made a scrambling par on his last hole, the 520-yard, par-4 18th. He hit only 10 of 18 greens, had 22 putts and made birdies from off the green three times. But even Iwata had a bogey, on the par-4 ninth, the one time he failed to get up and down.
Iwata went on to finish T-21, which points to the random nature of hot rounds, even in majors. Of the 63-shooters in majors (see chart below), nine didn't even finish in the top 10. And only six won.
BREAKING DOWN MILLER'S 63
Which gets us back to Miller. He was 26 when he won at Oakmont, yet to embark on his January 1974 through January 1975 run of 10 victories—the last three by margins of eight, 14 and nine strokes—that would establish him as a historic golfer whose capacity for "hot" has been matched only by Woods. But the seeds were planted with Miller's 63, which still has more bona fides than any other. It was shot in the championship designed to be the hardest. The place was Oakmont, historically the toughest of all U.S. Open sites, which was then a par 71 (35-36), not the par 70 it first became in 2007. It was shot in the last round, one Miller started six strokes behind the leader, trailing a pack of 12 golfers that included Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Player, Nicklaus, Julius Boros, Gene Littler, Weiskopf and Jerry Heard. Miller took the lead on the back nine, ending his round with two birdie putts that lipped out. All told, it's why the first 63 remains the best.
Miller will tell you about it. His frequent references to the round—especially as a commentator—have caused a backlash. When he says things like, "I mean, it was sort of an easy 63—pretty pure," Miller, now 69, seems a victim of "the older I get, the better I used to be" syndrome. But his playing partner that day at Oakmont, Miller Barber, said, "It very easily could have been 60." A closer look reveals Miller's round has mostly been underappreciated.
‘In baseball, the fences have stayed the same or been moved in. In golf, we move the fences back.’ —Lucius Riccio, Ph.D.
A LATE SWING KEY
After a third-round 76 that left him discouraged, Miller found a swing key late in his warm-up before the final round after he heard a voice in his head say clearly, "Open your stance way up."
"It wasn't a suggestion, it was a command," says Miller, who has a mystical streak he says emanates from a long line of artistic people on his father's side. On the other hand, after the round he said he had used the same thought before shooting 63 in the fourth round of the Bob Hope Desert Classic four months earlier, when he finished T-2 with Nicklaus in Palmer's last PGA Tour victory.
"I had a tendency to close my stance," Miller says, "and that adjustment did two things: It restricted my backswing, which could get a little long, and freed up my downswing so that I started firing my body much faster. I let my feet point way left, but my shoulders and the club were aimed right at the flag."
Miller missed only two fairways—his pulled tee shot on the 603-yard 12th hole was his sole encounter with deep rough, and he made an improbable birdie there after hitting a 4-iron to 14 feet. But otherwise playing from short grass, one of history's supreme iron players hit all 18 greens, many with long irons. Nine of his full iron shots finished within 15 feet of the hole, four of them getting inside six feet. He had 29 putts—leaving him only 34 tee-to-green shots; he hit the then-par-5 ninth in two—including a three-putt from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth hole.
Amazingly, after the round Miller said the memory of a 7-iron shank he had hit on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach in a playoff with Nicklaus the year before had preyed on his mind. "Don't shank—I was thinking that on almost every iron shot," he said. Still, it was indeed an easy 63.
‘It wasn’t like i was unconscious on the greens or chipping in. ... it wasn’t like I started hitting weird shots and scrambled to make par. I just kept hitting it at the flag.’
TAKING ON THE DOUBTERS
Plenty of contrarians have sought to diminish Miller's round through two common but erroneous assumptions. The first is that Oakmont played inordinately easy because it stayed soaked by rain and a malfunctioning sprinkler system that was, depending on the account, either left on all night before the start of the tournament or before the last round.
Author Adam Lazarus and Steve Schlossman, a professor in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University, have refuted those claims with research for their 2010 book Chasing Greatness: Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, and the Miracle at Oakmont. The authors point out that Oakmont, which lies in a valley near the Allegheny River, is often damp but because of superb drainage and conditioning rarely stays soggy for long. The only appreciable rain occurred on Saturday morning, causing the third round to be delayed by two hours.
A malfunction did cause a new sprinkler system to go on accidentally, but it was sometime in the pre-dawn hours of Friday. Frantic USGA officials directed workers to use every towel available to try to blot the moisture. By Friday and Saturday afternoons, Oakmont was back to playing close to normal, and the scores reflected as much. Bottom line, Miller played a full-blooded U.S. Open setup on which only three other players broke 70 in the final round: Lanny Wadkins with a 65, and Nicklaus and Ralph Johnston with 68s.
The second charge is that Miller was so far back starting the fourth round he could freewheel without pressure. That might have been true at the start, but when he walked off the fifth tee after birdies on the first four holes, Miller knew he was only two strokes behind the leaders as they prepared to tee off.
The television analyst who introduced the word "choke" to golf commentary concedes that as a player, "pressure was my weakness," and he began putting tentatively on the next four greens, leaving four birdie putts short, the final one leading to the three-putt at the eighth. "That was good, in a way," he says, "because it got me mad and changed me from nervous to determined." The rest of the round, Miller remained a ball-striking machine who putted assertively, starting with a two-putt birdie on the ninth.
"I'm proud of the way I finished," says Miller, who birdied the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th holes—the last three with 4-iron approaches—to shoot 31 on the more difficult nine. His totals for the day: nine birdies, eight pars and the lone bogey.
"It wasn't like I was unconscious on the greens or chipping in," he says. "I admit I choked a lot on the greens, but I never choked tee to green. Down the stretch, it wasn't like I started hitting weird shots and scrambled to make par. I just kept hitting it at the flag. And on 18, which is a great driving hole, I wasn't trying to milk it down the fairway. That was my best drive of the day, over 300 yards, my most aggressive swing, 120 miles per hour with a D-9 driver."
ALMOST NINE STROKES GAINED TEE TO GREEN
In 2014, David Barrett of Golf World determined that, by applying ShotLink's "strokes gained tee to green" metric retroactively, Miller's round is the standard for ball-striking over 18 holes. Based on the distances his approaches finished from the hole, Miller gained 8.90 strokes on the field tee to green, better than the 8.71 Jim Furyk achieved in his 59 at the 2013 BMW Championship. "That was nice to hear," says Miller, letting the finality of empirical data speak for itself.
Among the other 63s in majors that have been rated, Norman's opening round at the 1996 Masters is the next-best in strokes gained tee to green (6.71). In golf history, Norman has the most impressive collection of low rounds in majors, his two 63s joined by three 64s (two of them in the last round, both of them in the British Open).
"I was an extremely good driver of the golf ball, so I'd hit that club where others wouldn't and put myself in positions where I could be really aggressive," Norman says. "At the same time, my short game gave me a cushion when I shot at pins. All that was more pronounced in majors."
Norman prefers his second round at Turnberry in 1986, when he won his first of two British Opens. On a gray and blustery day in which the average score was over 74, Norman missed only one green and hit both par 5s in two to shoot 63. He has no regrets about charging his first putt on the 18th.
"I thought I was going to make the putt, which was the thinking that got me so far under par," he says. "I didn't think about my score on the second putt, I just missed it." Still, the failure to properly finish off such an otherwise supreme effort could be considered a microcosm of Norman's career.
All non-winning 63s are unsung, but the most consequential and dramatic among them belongs to Faxon in the final round of the 1995 PGA at Riviera. Faxon began the day focused on the low number he would need to finish in at least a tie for sixth, which would give him enough points to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team in the final qualifying round.
With an inspired attitude and using a confident sensation of connection at the top of his swing that he'd worked on with David Leadbetter, Faxon played the front nine in 28, tying the all-time nine-hole score for a major, set by Denis Durnian at the 1983 British Open at Royal Birkdale. Faxon hit the first 17 greens and putted even more brilliantly than normal despite the three misses from short range. After a mediocre chip on the 18th hole, he faced a curling 12-footer he figured he had to have.
"I think the Ryder Cup definitely took away any pressure from shooting 63," says Faxon, who finished fifth to make the U.S. team. "The ball and the sweet spot on my putter just sort of melted together, and I poured it in."
COMPARING A 62 TO A 63
No one interviewed for this story expressed any doubt that 62 (or lower) will be shot in a major relatively soon. But Faldo, for one, says he hopes the score lasts through his lifetime. "I'm very proud that I finished off my 63 with one of the best 2-irons of my life, from 210 yards," he said of his final shot in the second round at St. George's in 1993. "Today that's a 5- or 6-iron for these guys. I feel like I played in an era when the challenge was greater, and that will be easier to forget if the number goes lower."
At the same time, all acknowledged that the main reason the scoring barrier has existed so long is because major-championship setups have continued to get more difficult, ostensibly to keep up with the progress of modern golf, marked by increased distance, improved technique, more aggressive playing style and deeper fields. Golf has the ability to change the playing field more than any other sport.
As statistician Lucius Riccio, a professor of analytics at Columbia University, says, "In baseball, the fences have stayed the same or been moved in. In golf, we move the fences back."
The USGA's Mike Davis and Kerry Haigh, who is in charge of the setup for the PGA Championship, acknowledge there is an ever-smaller margin of error in finding the balance between sufficiently challenging the players and making the course unfair. Both say they would applaud the first 62 in a major, but Davis adds that although he isn't trying to prevent scores of 63 or lower, he doesn't want a U.S. Open setup to invite them, either. "Many years after Johnny shot his 63 at Oakmont, I asked P.J. Boatwright [longtime USGA executive director of rules and competitions] if the very difficult setup the next year at Winged Foot was a direct reaction to that round," Davis says. "P.J. smiled and said, 'Well, I can tell you this: After that, we weren't trying to make the golf courses easier.' "
Riccio identified some conditions that would make a 62 in a major more probable:
▶ A wet day at the PGA Championship, which has given up the most 63s (13).
▶ A windless round at a British Open links.
▶ A first-time major venue (like Erin Hills at next year's U.S. Open), where difficulty could be overestimated.
▶ The first or second round rather than the more pressurized weekend (or, if on the weekend, by someone toward the back of the pack).
▶ A par 70.
Of course, none of these conditions existed for Miller. Which is why as the years go by, his satisfaction with the round grows.
"I knew I had something special, but I hadn't quite gotten it out," he says. "When you finally manage to play golf the way you know you can under great pressure, that's what feels the best, that's what changes you as a player, that's what stays with you. That was the best round I ever played, and, I gotta say it, the best round I ever saw."
No brag, just fact. Miller's stands as the finest round of golf ever played. When the first 62 in a major is finally shot, may it be as good as the first 63.