Ben Wright: Miller Time

As the golf correspondent for England’s Financial Times from 1963 to 1989, I was lucky to witness some of the best final rounds in U.S. Open history, none greater than Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont in 1973. It was better than Arnold Palmer’s 65 at Cherry Hills in 1960 or Ben Hogan’s 67 at Oakland Hills in 1951, though many experts rate those superior.

Perhaps it’s because the farther east one went from the left coast, the less popular Miller became during his meteoric but short-lived career as a world-class golfer. As a player, Miller marched to the beat of his own drum, a California loner who set out to be that way, and for whom the grind of golf was exactly that.

The eighth hole of Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa. on Monday, July 20, 2015. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

There is no doubt in my mind that had Miller dedicated himself more fully to that grind, his reign at the top would have been much longer and his record would have encompassed more than two major titles. (He also won the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale.) But bringing up his family was every bit as important to Miller as winning tournaments, an attitude that left him on the outside in an era dominated by the Big Three of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, all of whom succumbed to Miller’s brilliant shotmaking at sodden Oakmont.

My argument starts with the fact that young Miller had won only two tour events in four years as a professional, while Hogan and Palmer had won multiple majors each before the aforementioned victories. Oakmont was a tougher course than the other two, with 187 bunkers, torturous rough and very narrow fairways. Those who disparage Miller’s achievement point out that it had rained around Pittsburgh for 27 days in May, and again very heavily on the Tuesday of Open week, taking the sting out of Oakmont’s usually hard, lightning-fast Poa annua greens.

Moreover, what went wrong with the sprinkler system after Thursday’s first round remains a mystery to this day. The greens were only supposed to get a five-minute watering after the first round, but in fact, they received a soaking. And worse was yet to come.

A major storm swept over Oakmont in the early hours of Saturday morning with heavy intervals through the day. Miller’s critics sneer that players were tossing darts into those greens with impunity, but they forget that the course was playing very, very long, and that Miller tossed his darts in the shape of the crispest, most beautiful iron shots imaginable—far better than the world’s best ranged against him.

After carding a third-round 76 (he compounded the miserable conditions by leaving his yardage book at his hotel), Miller was six shots in arrears at the start of the final round.

Paired with Miller Barber, he began the day in relative anonymity at 1:36 p.m., roughly an hour in front of the final pairing of 53-year-old Julius Boros and Jerry Heard. Miller leapt from the starting gate with four straight birdies to get to 1 under. By the 5th hole, Miller felt he could win for the very first time.

It was Herbert Warren Wind who influenced me to scamper across the footbridge over Pennsylvania Turnpike in search of Miller. We caught up with him on the par-3 8th tee after he had made routine pars at 5, 6 and 7. Miller promptly three-putted, however, for his solitary bogey, and was still four shots behind the leaders. He birdied the par-5 9th to go out in 32 and stood at 1 under.

When he birdied 11 and 12, the crowd suddenly awakened to Miller’s charge and mounted one of their own toward the footbridge. It still amazes me that there wasn’t a serious accident as people climbed on the railings, with the traffic speeding by below. Miller, meanwhile, kept up his own frenetic pace with birdie number seven at the 13th. Now only Palmer was tied with him. When Miller birdied No. 15, he had the lead all to himself.

Palmer made three successive bogeys on the back nine and was done for as Miller calmly parred in.

Trivia question: Who finished second?

Answer: John Schlee, who had driven out of bounds at the 1st hole, and lost by a single shot.