The Miller mystique, Johnny's journey

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The 2023 Bob Jones award recipient shook the golfing world 50 years ago with an earthquake U.S. Open round that still resonates. M. James Ward delves into that unforgettable moment and the broader lasting broader lasting contributions created by this impactful man and golfer.
Posted on
June 13, 2023
by
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Los Angeles, CA. If there's one specific thing Johnny Miller will always be remembered for it his score of 63 shot in the final round in claiming the U.S. Open title in 1973.

The round was monumental on a range of fronts. Catapulting Miller from a six-shot deficit and four-person tie for 13th after 54 holes to being crowned champion of American golf when all was said and done.

The San Francisco native climbed over nine Hall-of-Fame players including the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Julius Boros, Bob Charles, Gene Littler, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Weiskopf.

Bob Jones award - Miller
Johnny Miller holding the trophy after winning the 1973 U.S. Open Championship (Copyright Unknown/Courtesy USGA Archives)

To put matters into perspective, 13 years prior Arnold Palmer scored a final round 65 to win the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. Miller beat that mark by two shots in winning the same title.

He birdied the first four holes in succession and after a lone bogey at the long par-3 8th, birdied five of the next seven holes before narrowly missing a final birdie at the 18th hole for a possible 62.

How good was Miller that final round?

He reached all 18 greens in the regulation stroke and had 29 putts. His iron play was exemplary -- 10 approach shots finishing within 15 feet of the hole -- six within six feet. More remarkable, only three other players broke 70 that day. Incredibly, given the swift nature of the putting surfaces at Oakmont, only two of Miller's approaches finished above the hole.

(Copyright Unknown/Courtesy USGA)

Johnny missed just two fairways with nine birdies for the round. Putting his 63 into perspective, the scoring average for the final round was 73.8.

Conceivably, the round could have been lower. Nonetheless, Miller's 63 was the first such score recorded in a major championship. The mark was tied numerous times but only Henrik Stenson matched it in a final round by also winning the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon.

Since then, South African Brendan Grace did set the new 18-hole record with a 62 in a major event but that was accomplished in the 3rd round at The Open Championship in 2017 at Royal Birkdale.

Coming into that U.S. Open week at Oakmont, Miller had won only twice on the PGA TOUR before claiming the U.S. Open title. The Oakmont triumph became the springboard for a sterling career -- albeit brief in years in the mid-70s -- providing a total of 25 PGA TOUR wins with 105 top ten finishes and two major championships. Claiming the 1976 Open Championship by six shots over Seve Ballestero and Jack Nicklaus and doing so with a final round 66 which tied the Royal Birkdale course record. Yet the 18-hole score of 63 at Oakmont has only become more noteworthy through the passage of time.

Johnny Miller accepting the trophy for winning the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship held at Eugene Country Club (Copyright Unknown/Courtesy USGA Archives)

Miller's ascension onto the front page of the golfing scene started when winning the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur. Only two other players -- Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth -- have since duplicated the feat in winning both the USGA Junior and Open events.

Johnny's climb up the ladder became more noticeable when finishing T8 as a 19-year-old amateur at his home course, The Olympic Club, when the facility hosted the 1966 U.S. Open.

But the intersection with golf goes beyond his playing career. Miller became even more noted for his role as an analysist during television broadcasts starting in January, 1990 and ending in 2019 during the 3rd round of the Waste Management event.

Johnny did not follow the long-standing deferential treatment stated by past commentators but was forthright on what players faced during an event. The desire to be candid was not exactly endearing as Miller was not hesitant in using the word "choke" when players were unable to rise above mounting pressure during the conclusion of a tournament. His approach only widened his appeal to a new generation of golf fans who saw in Miller someone who could provide meaningful analysis and back it up via his past success as a world class player.

At the 1973 U.S. Open Championship (Copyright Unknown/Courtesy USGA Museum)

The 50-year anniversary of the 63 round coincides with another sports event that happened that same year and taking place just eight days prior to Miller's victory at Oakmont. The great Secretariat claimed the first triple crown in racing since 1948 with a tour de force climatic performance at the Belmont, winning by an astounding 31 lengths and still having the track record at 2 minutes 24 seconds for the event. As Miller finished off his play at Oakmont the response from the assembled gallery was noteworthy as lead ABC-Sports announcer Chris Schenkel referenced the moment by saying Johnny received -- "Secretariat type applause."

At 76 Miller is now retired from the game. He and his wife Linda have been married since 1969 and have six children as well as 25 grandchildren.

The Bob Jones Award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Golf Association (USGA). The award recognizes an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones. Miller was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998.

"This is such a great honor to receive the Bob Jones Award," said Miller. "It was always about the USGA evens for me. Growing up at The Olympic Club was such a privilege because it was a U.S. Open course and my father always told me that's the one, I need to win, the U.S. Open."

Johnny's contributions to our game are significant, and honoring him with the Bob Jones Award reflects everything he means to the game, and everything the game means to him," said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA.

Giving back to the game has been a central focal point for Miller.

Bob Jones award - Miller
At the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills (Copyright USGA)

Hard work, integrity and the positive attitude his father instilled in him from a young age is the fuel that propelled Johnny. Those same core values led him to create the Johnny Miller Champ Foundation, inspired by the nickname his father, Larry, gave him and focused on nurturing junior golfers, fostering positive coaching and promoting the dreams and aspirations of young athletes.

In 1997, the National Golf Foundation honored the Millers with the Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year Award, which recognized families who have made significant contributions to the game and exemplified the ideals of golf and family.

For more than 40 years, Miller has been helping American Indian Services provide scholarships and educational programs to Native Americans in pursuit of higher education. In that time, he has participated in 140 golf fundraisers for American Indian Services that have raised approximately $20 million for students in need of financial support.

Miller's modus operandi has always been about honesty. At times blunt and sometimes not so carefully edited as he would have likely preferred upon self-introspection. But always about being true to himself.

Bob Jones award - Miller
Johnny Miller visits the Lexus tent to see "The Johnny Miller Tribute Exhibit" during the second round of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club (Copyright USGA/Michael Cohen)

He resolutely believes his epic 63 round still commands the top perch as the single greatest round play in competitive play. It's hard to say he is wrong given the weight of what was accomplished and how it still shines brightly.

Unquestionably one of the finest iron players to have ever played, Miller's career should have been even more noted if not plagued by a balky putter at times.

With this year's U.S. Open being held in Los Angeles for the first time in 75 years, the United States Golf Association wisely opted to honor a native Californian who shaped the primacy of the most important golf championship played in the USA.

"There have been 59s shot. I (Miller) show 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," Miller told ESPN.com.

Yes indeed.

The Miller mystique still matters.

 

Johnny Miller's 63: club selection & results - June 17, 1973

Hole Yards Par Club selections Score Result To Par
1 469 4 Driver, 3-iron to 5 feet 3 birdie -1
2 343 4 Driver, 9-iron to 1 foot 3 birdie -2
3 425 4 Driver, 5-iron to 25 feet 3 birdie -3
4 549 5 Driver, 3-wood, bunker shot to 6 inches 4 birdie -4
5 379 4 Driver, 6-iron to 25 feet, 2 putts 4 par -4
6 195 3 3-iron to 25 feet, 2 putts 3 par -4
7 395 4 Driver, 9-iron to 6 feet, 2 putts 4 par -4
8 244 3 4-wood to 30 feet, 3 putts 4 bogey -3
9 480 5 Driver, 2-iron to 40 feet, 2 putts 4 birdie -4
Out 3,479 36 32 -4
10 462 4 Driver, 5-iron to 25 feet, 2 putts 4 par -4
11 371 4 Driver, wedge to 14 feet 3 birdie -5
12 603 5 Driver, 7-iron, 4-iron to 15 feet 4 birdie -6
13 185 3 4-iron to 5 feet 2 birdie -7
14 360 4 Driver, wedge to 12 feet, 2 putts 4 par -7
15 453 4 Driver, 4-iron to 10 feet 3 birdie -8
16 230 3 2-iron to 45 feet, 2 putts 3 par -8
17 322 4 1-iron, wedge to 10 feet, 2 putts 4 par -8
18 456 4 Driver, 5-iron to 20 feet, 2 putts 4 par -8
In 3,442 35 31 -4
Total 6,921 71 63 -8
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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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