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There is no better way to become an overnight, instant, presto, matinee idol in golf than to put yourself somewhere back in the Allegheny hills—about 12 coal mines and six roadhouses behind everybody seriously trying to win the U.S. Open championship, including a modest cast of Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Julius Boros and Tom Weiskopf—and then come cruising along with your golden hair fluttering in the breeze, young, handsome and trim, and knock them all sideways with the most wonderful round of golf ever played. Meet Johnny Miller (see cover), the proud owner of a 63 at Oakmont, the young man who demolished the famous old course and all those famous people last Sunday with his miraculous finish.
What most guys do when they realize they are six strokes and 12 players behind starting the last round of the Open, especially when most of those players are immortals, is shoot a 73 or something, grab their $1,700 and head for the airport. But what Johnny Miller did was go out roughly an hour ahead of the leaders and birdie half the golf course—exactly half the golf course, nine holes—and turn in the lowest single round in the 73-year history of our most important tournament.
It was one of those days that will be remembered in golf until some vague time in the future when even-birdie barely makes the cut and the Open is played on Venus. For the sake of posterity let us examine Miller's round blow by blow, for there is not likely to be another like it for a few decades. It was simply exquisite golf; nothing less. No shots bouncing off hot-dog sheds or tree trunks or sailing out of bunkers into the cups. Just golf, the way it ought to be played by one of the true stylists on the tour, a dashing young man of 26 with a fine big swing and easy tempo.
Here is how it went: a three-iron and a five-foot birdie putt on the 1st, a nine-iron and one-foot birdie at the 2nd, a five-iron and a 25-foot birdie at the 3rd, a sand shot and a six-inch birdie tap at the 4th, a six-iron and two putts for a par at the 5th, a three-iron and two putts for a par at the 6th, a nine-iron and two putts for a par at the 7th, a four-wood at the 8th that missed the green, followed by three putts for a bogey—his only lapse—and a two-iron and two putts for a birdie at the 9th. Miller had made the turn in 32, four under par.
"After I birdied the 3rd hole, I said to myself, "Son of a gun. I'm even par,' and I thought, 'Well, maybe I've got a chance to get back in the tournament!' But when I birdied the 4th I got a little tight. I almost gagged on a couple of putts at the 7th and 8th but the easy birdie at 9 calmed me down."
Miller was so calm he began to strike the ball even better. Like this: a five-iron and two putts for a par at the 10th, a wedge and a 14-foot birdie at the 11th, a four-iron and a 15-foot birdie at the 12th, a four-iron and a five-foot birdie at the 13th, a wedge and two putts for a par at the 14th, a four-iron and a 10-foot putt for a birdie at the 15th, a two-iron and two putts for a par at the 16th, a wedge and two putts for a par at the 17th and, finally, a five-iron and two putts for a par at the 18th. That made 31 coming in, 63 in all.
Miller appeared unusually solemn as he blazed over Oakmont, ripping it to shreds. And there was a reason. In 1971 he nearly did the same thing in the Masters. He almost shot another surreal round to come out of nowhere and win. But with a few holes left he started warming to the crowd. Waving and grinning.
"I finger-walked," he explained. "Nodding at everyone. And I lost. I guess I didn't actually let myself think about winning this time until the 18th tee when Miller Barber told me, 'Baby, you got it now.' "
The victory was worth considerably more to Johnny Miller than the $35,000 first prize. His agent and manager, Ed Barner, quickly sat down in the clubhouse and totaled up the bonus money that would flow from his contracts with Ford, MacGregor, Sears, Air West, etc., and came up with $49,000. "This year alone," said Barner proudly.
For a long while on Sunday it looked as if it would not matter what Miller shot because the whole world was busily winning the Open. There were three-way and four-way and five-way ties for the lead over the frenzied first nine holes involving the local pet, Arnold Palmer, and all kinds of other contenders.