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U.S. Open: Fifty years later, Johnny Miller revisits his U.S. Open-record 63

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LOS ANGELES – You really want to get someone’s goat, lure them into a G.O.A.T. debate.

Invite them to participate in that spurious, ubiquitous modern pursuit: Is LeBron James the Greatest Of All Time, or is Michael Jordan? Is it “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”?

Tiger Woods (15 majors, 82 victories)? Or Jack Nicklaus (18 majors, 72 victories)?

And if you’re G.O.A.T.-ing rounds of golf, Johnny Miller has a darn good case that his legendary 8-under-par 63 in the final round to win the 1973 U.S. Open is it.

In now-rare public comments, the 76-year-old former broadcaster and Hall of Fame player more or less made that argument Wednesday, as he held court during a 40-minute news conference at Los Angeles Country Club, where the 123rd U.S. Open is set to begin Thursday.

Before that, on Tuesday evening, the USGA paid tribute to Miller – a two-time major winner who went on to 30 honest, impactful years as a commentator for NBC – with the Bob Jones Award.

The first of Miller’s majors came at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, where, after starting the final round six strokes back, he chased down Niklaus and Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player — “all the who’s who in golf,” Miller said.

Fifty years later, his memories of that monumental June 17th round remain acute.

He remembers birdieing the first four holes: “The hair on the back of my neck sort of stood up.”

He recalls three-putting to bogey No. 8: “I went from sort of choking to getting a little bit mad. Not mad where I’d throw a club, but mad like, ‘What the heck are you doing, man?’ ”

He can tell you about lipping out “on the high side” on 17 and how he felt on 18, when he said, “I swung as hard as I could (and) … actually, when I finished on 18 something told me I had won, and I never really worried about whether those guys were going to catch me.”

“I guess,” Miller said, “you’d call it memorable.”

“I wanted to win the #USOpen so badly. To finally get that one was fantastic.”

Wishing a happy birthday to the one and only Johnny Miller! Who could forget his 63 at Oakmont? #FromManyOne pic.twitter.com/yGfuAzIJD4

— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) April 29, 2021

You might also call it the greatest.

Five other players have shot 63 at the U.S. Open since, but only Tommy Fleetwood did it in the final round, though he missed his final putt in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills and a chance to tie for the lead with a record 62.

And there have been a dozen sub-60 rounds in PGA Tour history – 11 59s and Jim Furyk’s 58.

But context is everything, Miller insisted, and none of those rounds mattered as much as his closing 18 at Oakmont.

“There will be guys that will shoot 61 or 62 (at the U.S. Open), but can they do it on Sunday to win? That’s what makes the round what it is,” he said. “It wouldn’t have done any good if I finished second. It would have been a nice round, but the fact that to win it and to beat Arnold Palmer in his backyard?

“It was almost a perfect ball-striking round … It was like somebody was helping me up there. It was not a normal round.

“There will be guys that will shoot lower scores, but can they do it on Sunday to win the U.S. Open and pass up the kind of guys that I passed up? That’s what makes the story or the round honorable. Makes it cool.”

DIVERSITY EFFORTS CONTINUE

Part of the appeal of the U.S. Open is how democratic it is – or is supposed to be.

John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s chief championships officer was the latest to make that point in a news conference Wednesday morning, when he mentioned the 10,187 golfers from around the world who participated in the qualification process.

“Our openness, we’re incredibly proud of that,” Bodenhamer said. “The way I like to think about our national open, all of our USGA championships, doesn’t matter the shape of your swing, where you grew up, where you come from, the color of your skin. If you can get your golf ball in the hole, you can play in the U.S. Open.”

That might be true, but there is a prohibitive amount of preparation required to seriously contend for a spot at the U.S. Open.

And so, when a reporter noted that there are no Black players in this year’s field of 156, Mike Whan, the USGA’s CEO, and Fred Perpall, the USGA’s president, conceded that the playing field isn’t, in fact, level.

Golf’s governing body is working on it, said Perpall, who is Black. He noted that the USGA is donating $15 million to refurbish the Maggie Hathaway Golf Course, a county-owned par-3 track that has been an affordable, accessible golf site for more than six decades in South Los Angeles.

And Whan talked about the new U.S. National Development program, which he said is meant to support talented young golfers, “no matter what they look like or where they come from or how wealthy their parents are in the States.”

Whan said he hopes he and his colleagues will be able to use lessons from the past to broaden participation, acknowledging that golf has whiffed badly on opportunities to do so before.

“We all watched the Tiger Woods parade go by and then when the parade left, it actually left,” said Whan, who credited a more diverse clientele with growing the game since the pandemic.

“COVID gave us parade No. 2. In American golf right now, we’re over 41 million people playing this game, and just seven, eight years ago it was 34 … what’s happened here in the last four years, is juniors, women, and people of color. You take that out of the mix and we wouldn’t be talking about the greatest golf boom we’ve ever seen.

“As an industry we’re more aligned on parade No. 2. Back when the first parade came by, we didn’t really talk to each other that much, but now we’re sort of all in.”

“I hate to admit it,” he added, “but I think it probably took the first miss to have the second one be so successful.”

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