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Stuck on 63

Why Johnny Miller's U.S. Open scoring record won't fall anytime soon

By: Geoff Shackelford

Johnny Miller’s 63 will be revisited ad nauseum with this year’s return to William and Henry Fownes’ torturous Oakmont Country Club design. And rightfully so. On a day when only three other players broke par, the 1973 U.S. Open champion’s epic final round established a new single-round major championship scoring record.

“Once I broke that barrier, the fear of going low was erased,” Miller noted in his 2005 book, I Call the Shots. “It was similar to when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile—a ton of people soon followed.”

Sure enough, since Miller’s precedent-setting round there have been 21 rounds of 63 in men’s majors. But unlike Bannister, nobody has gone lower. At the U.S. Open, the ongoing 34-year period is the longest stretch between new single-round scoring records. So what’s stopping one of today’s athletically primed, mechanically perfect, mentally supreme and technologically advantaged players from breaking 63?

“They’re making it harder and harder to score in a major,” says 1997 PGA champion Davis Love III. “They’re making the rough deeper and the penalty for hitting a bad shot is getting more and more extreme. Yet there are better and better players, so on a wet day or a calm day, somebody should have done it by now.”

Likely candidates
Of course, some have come close. In the first round of the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Jack Nicklaus missed a three-foot birdie putt that would have given him a 62, And in the third round of the 1986 Masters, Nick Price’s 62nd stroke lipped out.

Surprisingly, Price is only one of two players to shoot 63 at Augusta National, a course that would have seemed the most vulnerable, especially before the changes to the course that began in the late ’90s.

“Someone should have shot 62 at Augusta before they narrowed it and lengthened it,” says defending U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “I’m not saying it’s an easy golf course. I’m saying it’s a great design because when you play well and you hit it in the right spots, putting and chipping can be a lot easier there.”

The other player to shoot 63 at the Masters is Greg Norman, whose first-round 63 in 1996 is largely forgotten because of what happened to him on Sunday. Norman and Vijay Singh are the only players to have recorded two 63s in majors.

Now, the likelihood of a player bettering Price and Norman is slim. Since 2002, when the committee lengthened the course to 7,270 yards (now 7,445) and added trees, the lowest score has been 65. “Augusta is scared to death of , so the course is bordering on unfair,” says Love.

So the design seemingly most vulnerable to a 62 is the Old Course at St. Andrews, which has several drivable par 4s and is site of the lowest winning score to par in a major, Tiger Woods’ 19 under in 2000. But only one player, Paul Broadhurst in 1990, shot 63 there during the British Open.

“It hurts our chances that there are only two par 5s at the Old Course,” says Ogilvy.

Better, tougher conditions
At the Old Course and other British Open layouts, conditions are largely dependent on the weather. For the U.S.-based majors, course conditioning is vastly superior to what players saw just 15 years ago, suggesting that the combination of smoother greens and players armed with technologically superior clubs and balls should have yielded a 62 by now.

“The conditions are better, but they are so much tougher,” says two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal, who shot 63 at Valhalla Golf Club during the third round of the 2000 PGA Championship. “They’re making the fairways narrow, the rough thicker, the greens harder and faster, and that’s why it’s going to be hard for someone to break the record.”

Ogilvy agrees. “The rough’s gotten so healthy in just the last few years,” he says. “You see footage of 1973 and Johnny Miller is hitting 6-irons out of the rough and onto the green from 170 yards. Not to put down Johnny Miller’s 63, because I’ve gotten to hear about it from Miller Barber, who played with him that day and it’s without a doubt the best round of all time, but it’s a lot tougher to recover from the rough on a lot of today’s major venues.”

Sometimes the conditions are too tough, and the prime examples are the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. At Shinnecock the USGA set up the course too firm and fast for the final round; putts on the 7th hole were rolling off the green, which the grounds crew eventually had to water between groups.

Carnoustie’s fairways were so narrow that even Ben Hogan, who had won at the same course with a masterful display of driving accuracy, might have had trouble hitting them. “It’s unfortunate that they set up courses to try and keep you from shooting a low score,” says Love. “The U.S. Open to me is getting over the top. Augusta is getting over the top. The Open Championship, other than Carnoustie in ’99, is by far the most fair and the one you look forward to playing the most.”

Not surprisingly, both the British Open and the PGA Championship, where the setup is usually less severe than the U.S. Open, have each yielded more rounds of 63 (seven and nine, respectively) than the Masters (two) and U.S. Open (four) combined.

U.S. Open: final barrier
Miller may have shot the first major-championship 63 at an Oakmont U.S. Open, but many players don’t expect the first 62 to come at Oakmont or at any other future U.S. Open venue.

“When I was growing up, it was routinely 5, 6, 7 under par that won the tournament,” says Ogilvy. “And the guy that won the tournament was shooting 1 or 2 under on Sunday.

“Look at Winged Foot. I shot 2 over on Sunday. The U.S. Open’s measure is getting tougher.”

That’s fine for some. “It’s a major; it’s supposed to be tougher,” says Padraig Harrington. “That’s the way it’s always been and I hope it stays that way.”

This philosophical divide lies at the current debate over course setup and in a larger sense, over whether classic courses remain a viable test for the best players in the world.

Ogilvy believes scoring is a poor barometer of the quality of a course and a championship. “Who says it’s a bad thing to shoot a low score, apart from 98 percent of the golf community?

“At the end of the day, when you count in everything that people claim is wrong with golf at the moment, the belief people have that low scores are bad for golf is the root of all evil. Does Tiger Woods shooting 12 under at Pebble Beach make it a bad course? No, it proved that Pebble Beach is a proper golf course. It proves that a guy who thinks about where he wants to hit it and who actually hits it where he intends can separate himself from the field.”

Woods has never recorded a score less than 65 in a major, but it hasn’t hurt him. Still, many players look at 62 as an almost unthinkable accomplishment in today’s era of greens measuring 12 feet on the Stimpmeter, fairways narrowing to 20 yards and rounds clocking in at five hours, making it that much tougher to build momentum and avoid the deadly consequences of scoreboard watching.

But the man who set the current yardstick believes 62 is but a stepping stone. “Someone will shoot 59 in a major,” says Miller. “There won’t be fleets of them because courses are getting harder. And it may not happen for a number of years. But it’s going to happen in my lifetime.”

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