BATTLE OF THE AGES

It seemed as if the U.S. Open might have its oldest champion, then young Johnny Miller embarrassed historic Oakmont with his disrespectful 63
June 24, 1973

There is no betterway to become an overnight, instant, presto, matinee idol in golf than to putyourself somewhere back in the Allegheny hills—about 12 coal mines and sixroadhouses behind everybody seriously trying to win the U.S. Open championship,including a modest cast of Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, GaryPlayer, Julius Boros and Tom Weiskopf—and then come cruising along with yourgolden hair fluttering in the breeze, young, handsome and trim, and knock themall sideways with the most wonderful round of golf ever played. Meet JohnnyMiller (see cover), the proud owner of a 63 at Oakmont, the young man whodemolished the famous old course and all those famous people last Sunday withhis miraculous finish.

What most guys dowhen they realize they are six strokes and 12 players behind starting the lastround of the Open, especially when most of those players are immortals, isshoot a 73 or something, grab their $1,700 and head for the airport. But whatJohnny Miller did was go out roughly an hour ahead of the leaders and birdiehalf the golf course—exactly half the golf course, nine holes—and turn in thelowest single round in the 73-year history of our most importanttournament.

It was one ofthose days that will be remembered in golf until some vague time in the futurewhen even-birdie barely makes the cut and the Open is played on Venus. For thesake of posterity let us examine Miller's round blow by blow, for there is notlikely 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 outof bunkers into the cups. Just golf, the way it ought to be played by one ofthe true stylists on the tour, a dashing young man of 26 with a fine big swingand easy tempo.

Here is how itwent: a three-iron and a five-foot birdie putt on the 1st, a nine-iron andone-foot birdie at the 2nd, a five-iron and a 25-foot birdie at the 3rd, a sandshot and a six-inch birdie tap at the 4th, a six-iron and two putts for a parat the 5th, a three-iron and two putts for a par at the 6th, a nine-iron andtwo 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 puttsfor a birdie at the 9th. Miller had made the turn in 32, four under par.

"After Ibirdied the 3rd hole, I said to myself, "Son of a gun. I'm even par,' and Ithought, 'Well, maybe I've got a chance to get back in the tournament!' Butwhen I birdied the 4th I got a little tight. I almost gagged on a couple ofputts at the 7th and 8th but the easy birdie at 9 calmed me down."

Miller was so calmhe began to strike the ball even better. Like this: a five-iron and two puttsfor a par at the 10th, a wedge and a 14-foot birdie at the 11th, a four-ironand a 15-foot birdie at the 12th, a four-iron and a five-foot birdie at the13th, a wedge and two putts for a par at the 14th, a four-iron and a 10-footputt 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 twoputts for a par at the 18th. That made 31 coming in, 63 in all.

Miller appearedunusually solemn as he blazed over Oakmont, ripping it to shreds. And there wasa reason. In 1971 he nearly did the same thing in the Masters. He almost shotanother surreal round to come out of nowhere and win. But with a few holes lefthe started warming to the crowd. Waving and grinning.

"Ifinger-walked," he explained. "Nodding at everyone. And I lost. I guessI didn't actually let myself think about winning this time until the 18th teewhen Miller Barber told me, 'Baby, you got it now.' "

The victory wasworth considerably more to Johnny Miller than the $35,000 first prize. Hisagent and manager, Ed Barner, quickly sat down in the clubhouse and totaled upthe bonus money that would flow from his contracts with Ford, MacGregor, Sears,Air West, etc., and came up with $49,000. "This year alone," saidBarner proudly.

For a long whileon Sunday it looked as if it would not matter what Miller shot because thewhole world was busily winning the Open. There were three-way and four-way andfive-way ties for the lead over the frenzied first nine holes involving thelocal pet, Arnold Palmer, and all kinds of other contenders.

Certainly most ofthe thousands were cheering for Palmer to win, which would have been a romanticthing indeed. There was a moment early in the round when Palmer led by himself,and later, when Miller had gone flying by, he found himself standing over afour-foot birdie putt at the 11th with a chance to move back into a tie. Hemissed that one, and it turned his day around. At the 12th tee Arnold glancedat a leader board in time to notice that Johnny Miller had gone five under, andhe said to his playing partner, John Schlee, "What the hell is Millershooting?"

Palmer absorbedthe fantastic figure and started pressing. This resulted in three straightbogeys, which carried him back into a tie for fourth with the other immortals,Trevino, who closed with 70, and Jack Nicklaus, who had a fine 68 but agenerally inconsistent Open.

It was left to thesurprising Schlee to make the boldest run at Miller. Schlee had won only onetournament in his life, this year's Hawaiian Open, but he came to the last twoholes needing one birdie to tie, even though he had begun his day with a doublebogey at the 1st hole. On each hole he came close but when he missed bothtimes, John Schlee was a runner-up, John Miller the champion.

Mainly it was theweather that kept Oakmont from being Oakmont. A Tuesday rainstorm so softenedthe course that it could never achieve the legendary fastness which had made ita monster in the past. The spongy fairways kept many a drive from bounding intothe USGA weeds, and the greens held throughout. They were speedy, but they werenot "Oakmont Fast."

And some of thescoring that this condition produced bordered on the ridiculous—for an Open. OnFriday, for example, there were 19 rounds below par 71, and this was an Openrecord. For any course. This was the day that an obscure club pro, Gene Borek,shot a 65, strolling along in his brimmed hat, looking like a tire salesman onhis way to the driving range. His 65 was an Oakmont record by two blowsalthough it was destined to last only two days. Borek thus inserted his nameinto the USGA annals, One-Day Glory Division, along with people like Lee Mackeyand Rives McBee, other unknowns who had carved out 64s in their day—anddisappeared. And Borek followed up the 65 with the round that everybody knew hewould have—an 80—and then a 75.

What Borek hadproved conclusively was that the low rounds were out there to be had if afellow could stay in the fairways and drop a few putts. Oakmont in 1973 was farfrom impossible. It was inviting. Whereas 11 years before, in the 1962 Open,only one round of 67 had been shot, this Oakmont seemed at times like apitch-and-putt layout. When play was over the statistics against the coursewere not only impressive, they were astounding. A total of 40 subpar rounds hadbeen turned in by the 65 players who had survived the cut, compared to 19 in1962. Aside from Borek's 65, the ex-monster had yielded another 65 to LannyWadkins, a 66 to Jerry Heard, 67s to Schlee, Gary Player and Buddy Allin, andmore 68s and 69s than you could shake a blue coat and armband at.

For all of this,however, you could not fault Oakmont. It might be taking its licks from theweather and the equipment and the skills of the modern-day professional, but itwas providing one whale of a championship. Oakmont had drawn forth the best andthe biggest names to its leader boards from the very first, and kept them therebattling each other all the way.

Usually in an Openchampionship one finds a Nicklaus here and a Palmer there, squeezed in amongthe Boreks and others, until Sunday afternoon when the pressure gets toeverybody but a couple of men who have a reputation. By contrast, Oakmont'sleader board from Thursday on resembled a sort of current Hall of Fame. Forinstance, Gary Player's delicately putted 67 led on Thursday and not too farback were Lee Trevino with a 70 and Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and GeneLittler with 71s. When Player's second-round 70 held the lead, he was stillpart of a congestion that included Trevino, Nicklaus, Palmer, Julius Boros andTom Weiskopf, to drop a few names. And when Player finally faltered on Saturdaywith his horrendous 77, the top 10 players fell into a heap separated by onlyfour strokes. And who were they?

The elite is whothey were. Six of the 10 leaders going out Sunday to decide it all were Palmer,Boros, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player and Bob Charles, a handsome little group ofgentlemen who held 35—thirty-five, mind you—major championships between them.The only outsiders were Weiskopf, Heard, Schlee and Jim Colbert; and Weiskopf,of course, had come into Oakmont as the hottest thing on the PGA tour. So therewas hardly anything more that one could have asked of Oakmont despite theinsanity of the low scores it had given up.

Every round of anOpen is distinctive in its own way, standing as sort of a tiny historicalmonument. Thursday's play was highlighted by two intriguing incidents, oneinvolving Player and the other Nicklaus.

Player was thefellow who first indicated that Oakmont could be had when he assaulted thepremises with six birdies in the first 11 holes. He did not appear to beplaying particularly well but he was putting like a genius. On those long,curving 40-footers that were once considered death at Oakmont, he was eitherrolling the ball into the hole or leaving it only one inch away. What would heshoot, a 60, for God's sake?

It was at the 12thhole, a long par-5, that something one might describe as "Open thought"caught up with him. He drove into the rough and then spent a great deal of timetrying to decide between a three-wood and, of all things, an eight-iron for hissecond.

In golf, trying todecide between a three-wood and an eight-iron is like trying to decide betweenan airliner and a bus if you want to get somewhere in a hurry. Player chose theeight-iron and hit it 75 yards, leaving himself a one-iron to the green. He hitthat into a trap, took three to get down and wound up with a bogey, marring theround. Not that the 67 was unpleasant, but he had been in a mood to shoot evenlower.

"All of asudden, I got very negative," he explained later. "I simply lost myhead."

Nicklaus hadplayed poorly throughout Thursday's round, and seemed headed for a lackluster73, or something like that. When he reached the 17th he was two over par andhad shown no indication of doing anything more than trying to get into theclubhouse without a broken arm. But the 17th was alluring, a 322-yard par-4,and on Thursday there was a helping wind. Jack took out the driver and crushedit. The ball soared 290 yards in the air, up and over a row of young pin oaks,over weeds and bunkers, and bounced up on the green only 12 feet from the flag.It was a tremendous drive, bringing forth a mighty roar, and Jack sank the puttfor the eagle that gave him a 71 and put him just four strokes behind Playerinstead of six.

Friday was the dayPlayer tried to shoot the 77 he did shoot on Saturday, but his putter keptrescuing him. Like the five one-putt greens he had on the front nine. But heknew he was on borrowed time. In fact, he phoned his wife that night and toldher she might as well expect something atrocious soon, like a 77. And Fridaywas principally Gene Borek's day, plus a day when the other names slyly movedinto position. One such person was Miller, whose 69, along with an opening 71,left him just three strokes behind Player. Not that Johnny Miller was much of aname at that point.

For most of thecrowd, Saturday belonged to Arnold Palmer. It was one of those old-fashioneddays when Arnie had the Army on the march again, slashing out a 68, lookingyounger than his 43 years, eager and aggressive. But it was also 53-year-oldJulius Boros' day, and paired with Palmer as he was, the scene was even morenostalgic. Had either won the tournament he would have become the oldest Openchampion. As Player was letting it slip away, as Nicklaus was making a tour ofOakmont's 187 bunkers while shooting a 74, and as Miller was apparently losingany chance of victory with a 76, the Open fell into the hands of Palmer andBoros, both of whom were knocking in the putts that counted. When the two oldfolks were through they were on top of the heap with 210. But even then theywere not alone.

While the crowdswere howling for Palmer and Boros, and moaning for Nicklaus and Player, therewas this pairing of Heard and Schlee. All they were up to was a 66 (for Heard)and a 67 (for Schlee), and they barged right into a share of the 54-holelead.

As Heard andSchlee trudged up the 18th fairway, they had some peculiar thoughts. Schleerecounted the conversation.

Heard said,"This doesn't seem like the U.S. Open. Isn't this supposed to be the mostimportant tournament in the world?"

And Schlee said,"What are we doing leading it?"

Heard said,"Are you that good?"

And Schlee said,"Are you?"

"I don'tknow," said Heard. "We must be."

John Schlee almostwas, as he closed with a 280, three strokes lower than anyone had shot inOakmont's four previous Opens. Tom Weiskopf almost was, finishing third with a281, which was still better than anyone in the past. All those legendarynames—Nicklaus, Trevino and Palmer—almost were good enough. The three formerOpen champions each shot 282, one below the old record. Wadkins, Heard andBoros wound up at 283, equaling the best.

But this was noordinary Oakmont, as the scores proved, and Johnny Miller was far from havingan ordinary day. Tom Weiskopf probably put it better than anyone else.

"JohnnyMiller?" Weiskopf laughed. I didn't even know Miller had made thecut."

THREE PHOTOSArnold Palmer and Julius Boros were cast as heroes until Mr. Miller came dancing by. PHOTODressed like someone on a vacation at the shore, John Schlee almost landed his biggest catch. PHOTOAll week Lee Trevino yukked it up with the galleries while they waited for him to make a move that never came. PHOTOTom Weiskopf had won three times in a month, but when he reached for another, he came up empty-handed. PHOTOGary Player's opening 67 that gave him the lead was a signal that it would be a black week for Oakmont. PHOTOJerry Heard shot an easygoing 66 to share a third-round lead but on Sunday he was easygoing, gone. PHOTO Oh yes,Jack Nicklaus was at Oakmont, too, all over Oakmont as a matter of fact,hip-deep in trouble from which he never completely recovered.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)