You probably heard that Johnny Miller once shot a 63 in the final round of a major championship, firing at those treacherous Oakmont flags on his way to winning the 1973 U.S. Open, becoming the first player to score so low in one of the game’s biggest tournaments.
And you may very well have heard it from Miller himself.
Repeatedly. Like, numerous times over a nearly 30-year broadcasting career that is set to come to an end early in 2019.
It was both an infuriating and enduring quality Miller possessed, causing many to dislike his work as an analyst, but so a part of what made Johnny Miller, well, Johnny Miller.
Even as he approached his 70th birthday and was decades removed from a Hall of Fame playing career, Miller had no problem reminding viewers of his own golf prowess back in the day, one that he clearly felt gave him the bona fides to be critical in his analysis of the golf he described.
Unlike team sports, where stern evaluation of play is not only common but expected, golf has typically been handled more passively by analysts, who have been loath to call out players who typically were their peers.
Miller, 71, pulled no punches, having little problem saying a player “choked” or “gagged” in certain situations — and often facing the ire of players, wives, agents, sponsors and fans.
“It was so startling to people. It’s not a nice word, but it definitely gets the job as far as communicating.”
Johnny Miller, on using the word “choke” when describing a shot that Peter Jacobsen in 1990
The examples are numerous, going all the way to his first broadcast at the 1990 Bob Hope Classic where he described a shot that Peter Jacobsen was about to hit as “one he could choke on.” Miller never said that he would or that he did, but the word itself elicited gasps.
“It was so startling to people,” Miller said on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s not a nice word, but it definitely gets the job as far as communicating.”
Even when he wasn’t part of the broadcast team, Miller could rankle. At last year’s U.S. Open where Justin Thomas shot a third-round 63 at Erin Hills — becoming just the fifth player to shoot that low in a U.S. Open — Miller was only mildly impressed.
“Taking nothing away from 9-under par — 9 under is incredible with U.S. Open pressure,” Miller told Golf Channel. “But it isn’t a U.S. Open course that I’m familiar with the way it was set up.”
And: “For one, the greatness of my round is the 63 in the last round of the U.S. Open to win by one,” he said. “Everything else is way secondary. If somebody does it tomorrow to win the U.S. Open by one, that’s the specialness of my round. And secondly, Erin Hills isn’t exactly Oakmont.”
Miller’s 63 at Oakmont was, indeed, a legendary round. Jack Nicklaus (1980), Tom Weiskopf (1980), Vijay Singh (2003), Thomas (2017) and Tommy Fleetwood (2018) are the only others to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open, but only Nicklaus at Baltusrol went on to victory.
Fleetwood’s 63 in the final round this year at Shinnecock came after he narrowly missed a birdie putt on the final green for a 62 that would have tied Brooks Koepka. Henrik Stenson, at the 2016 Open, is the only other player to shoot 63 in the final round of a major and win. Only one player, Branden Grace at the 2017 Open, has shot 62 in a major.
“If it had been on Thursday or Friday, it would have just been a terrific round,” Miller said in a 2016 interview of his 63. “To go past all those guys who were in front of me and the fact I birdied the first four holes. Then I choked the next four holes thinking I had a chance to win. I had to go through that gauntlet of thinking. The putting the hammer down and finish well, hitting every green in regulation.
“It’s nice to have that one round that people will remember. Until someone does something like that or better, it’ll always be thought about.”
To look closely at the final round is to marvel at what Miller accomplished. He birdied the first four holes, his only bogey coming at the 8th — where he three-putted. He then rebounded with a near-eagle and an easy birdie at the ninth, with more birdies at the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th. His round ended with three pars, missing a 10-footer for birdie at the 17th, and lipping out at the 18th.
Miller missed just two fairways and hit all 18 greens in regulation.
“Those greens are the toughest greens in the country,” said Miller, who was 26 at the time of his victory. “You just have to be a great ball striker. You have to put the ball underneath the hole. In that 63, I only had two balls above the hole in 18 greens hit. That was the secret to that round.”
Miller won 25 times on the PGA Tour, including two majors and an out-of-nowhere victory in 1994 at Pebble Beach, when he was 46 years old and five years into his stint at NBC. (Due to putting “yips” that plagued Miller in the latter part of his career, he putted that week with his eyes closed.) He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998.
Known as a supreme ball striker, Miller was at his best in the early to mid-1970s. He won eight times in 1974, then added three more victories in 1975, including the Phoneix Open by 14 strokes and the Tucson Open by 9, with a final-round 61.
As only Miller could put it: “When I won at Tucson by 9 shots in 1975, I would say the average iron shot I hit that week was no more than 2 feet off line. It was unbelievable. When I was at my peak, I would go into streaks where I felt that I could know down the pin from anywhere with my irons. I played some golf that I think is unequaled.”
And that was always the beauty of Miller as a broadcaster: you knew where he stood.