Johnny Miller's magnificent 63 still resonates

An entire generation of golf fans knows Johnny Miller almost exclusively because of his work as a television analyst -- his controversial comments and bold statements a common topic of conjecture.

For more than 25 years, Miller, 69, has been in the broadcast tower, rarely holding back.

A good part of the reason Miller has occupied that space for so long is his honesty and bluntness, but it wasn't just his candor that got him there. Miller was a Hall of Fame player who won 25 times on the PGA Tour, including two major championships.

He fashioned a reputation for being able to make a flurry of birdies and shoot extremely low scores. But one round, of course, stands out -- the 63 he shot during the final round of the U.S. Open in 1973 at Oakmont Country Club.

Miller has never been shy about talking about that round, and he has referenced it on more than a few occasions on the air. Then again, if ever there was a round to boast about and recount, the first 63 ever shot in a major championship would seem to qualify.

In 2000, Golf Magazine ranked it the best round in golf history, and while there are undoubtedly other contenders, there is no denying its place in the annals of the game, especially as it came in the final round and helped him win a major.

"That's why it was voted the greatest round,'' Miller said last week after being honored by the Memorial Tournament. "There have been 59s shot, I shot several 61s in my career. But to shoot 63 at Oakmont on the last day to win by one is what makes the round what it is.

"If it had been on Thursday or Friday, it would have just been a terrific round. To go past all those guys ... in front of me and the fact I birdied the first four holes. Then I choked the next four holes thinking I had a chance to win. I had to go through that gauntlet of thinking. The putting the hammer down and finish well, hitting every green in regulation.

"It's nice to have that one round that people will remember. Until someone does something like that or better, it'll always be thought about.''

And the fact that it was at Oakmont makes the round even more special. The U.S. Open next week returns to Oakmont for a record ninth time, and the course's hallmark has always been in its difficulty.

In eight previous Opens at Oakmont, only a total of 19 players have finished the tournament under par, with eight of those coming in 1994. Three times nobody was under par, including in 2007, when Angel Cabrera won with a total of 285, 5 over par; it was the last time the U.S. Open was played at the Pennsylvania course.

Going way back, Tommy Armour's victory at Oakmont in 1927 was the last in which an Open winner shot over 300. Since Sam Parks Jr.'s 1935 victory at 299 for 11 over in which he averaged 75 per round, just two winning scores at any Open venue have been at 290 or above -- the last being Jack Nicklaus' 1972 win at Pebble Beach, where he shot 290. And the last time the Open was played at Oakmont prior to Miller's triumph in 1973, only Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer finished under par in 1962 at 1 under. (Nicklaus prevailed in a playoff.)

So yeah ... Oakmont can be brutal.

"Those greens are the toughest greens in the country,'' said Miller, who was 26 at the time of his victory. "You just have to be a great ball striker. You have to put the ball underneath the hole. In that 63, I only had two balls above the hole in 18 greens hit. That was the secret to that round.''

Over the years, there have been attempts to rationalize the low score, perhaps diminish it, or maybe it was simply due to information that was embellished or misreported.

The United States Golf Association even took the measure of trying to set the record straight on its website and separate fact from fiction.

For example, for a long time, it was thought that Oakmont was wet and soft during Miller's final round. In fact, it had rained on Saturday morning, but the course was dry come Sunday's final round.

Another fallacy that a sprinkler malfunction had softened the greens on that Sunday was determined to have happened two days prior.

Miller said that forgetting his yardage book at the hotel on Saturday nearly cost him the tournament. He shot a 76 during the third round, unnerved by not having the exact yardages he had plotted out. And yet, he eagled the ninth hole that day, and after getting the book from his wife at the turn, he went on to shoot 3 over par on Saturday's final nine holes.

"I went to the first tee not knowing I didn't have my book and [when I realized it was missing] the hair on the back of my neck stood up,'' Miller said during a 2007 interview. "It's one course you need perfect yardage for those crazy greens. It's Oakmont, and you've got to be perfect. I was really nervous and that just put me over the edge.

"Linda [his wife] went back and got me my yardage book [he was 5 over through six holes], and it wasn't like I was hacking. It was a combination of nerves, no yardage book, hitting a few crappy shots.''

During the final round, Miller was also not the only player to go way low. Lanny Wadkins had a chance to match Miller with a birdie at the closing hole but made a bogey for 65. But there were just two other rounds in the 60s that day. (Par was 71 in 1973; it will be a par-70 this year.) For the week, there were just 24 scores in the 60s.

To look closely at the final round is to marvel at what Miller accomplished:

He birdied the first four holes. His only bogey cane at the eighth, where he three-putted. He then rebounded with a near eagle and an easy birdie at the ninth, with more birdies at the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th. His round ended with three pars; he missed a 10-footer for birdie at the 17th and lipped out at the 18th.

Miller missed just two fairways over those final 18 holes. During the first two rounds, he played with the local legend Palmer, bettering him by two strokes.

Palmer, who had not won a major since 1964 and at age 43 would get his last great opportunity at Oakmont, was clearly the buzz going into the final round. He was in a four-way tie for the 54-hole lead with John Schlee, Jerry Heard and Julius Boros.

Tom Weiskopf was a stroke behind, with Lee Trevino in a group two back and Nicklaus and Gary Player four back.

There was some firepower, not to mention name recognition, at the top of the leaderboard.

Miller was six strokes behind to start out on Sunday, but he'd closed to within two before the leaders had even teed off when he opened with four birdies in a row and got to the lead with his birdie run on the back nine. He closed with a 31 and a 63 that easily could have been lower.

It was the first time a score of 63 had been shot in a major championship, and no player -- despite several close calls -- has yet to shoot 62 all these years later.

Since Miller's 63, there have been 26 more in majors, including three at the U.S. Open and just two at the Masters. The last was by Hiroshi Iwata at the PGA Championship last year, although his plight shows that a 63 doesn't always mean much: Iwata tied for 21st.

In all, just six of the players who shot 63 in a major went on to win -- Miller, Nicklaus (1980 U.S. Open), Raymond Floyd (1982 PGA), Greg Norman (1986 Open), Tiger Woods (2007 PGA) and Jason Dufner (2013 PGA).

Norman and Vijay Singh are the only players to shoot 63 twice.

But Miller's 63 stands above.

"Somebody will probably go lower,'' Miller said. "But it's just a matter of if they do it at the end to win. Somebody might shoot 62 on a setup where maybe they couldn't grow the rough that year or whatever. The number to me is important but not everything. It's where you do it and how the course played.''