ERIN, Wis. – In a cruel twist, Johnny Miller was on-site at Erin Hills on Saturday afternoon as one of the most talked-about rounds in golf history was replaced in the record books.
Forty-four years to the day after Miller’s famed round at Oakmont, Justin Thomas sank an 8-foot eagle on the final hole to fire a 9-under 63 and post the lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history.
Miller’s 8-under 63 in the 1973 Open endures as one of the greatest feats in the sport, in large part because of the difficulty of the course (Oakmont), the magnitude of the moment (final round), the field average (only three other players broke 70) and the stars he overcame to win by one (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf).
And so forgive Johnny for not being ready to cede the spotlight just yet.
“Taking nothing away from 9 under par – 9 under is incredible with U.S. Open pressure,” Miller told GolfChannel.com by phone. “But it isn’t a U.S. Open course that I’m familiar with the way it was set up.”
The U.S. Open has long been defined by its length and narrow fairways, by hack-out rough and concrete, lightning-fast greens. At more than 7,800 yards, first-time host Erin Hills might be the longest course in tournament history, but it also features 50-yard-wide fairways that have played even wider after two rainstorms earlier this week.
Watching the action Saturday – he was on hand for a sponsor outing – Miller said the U.S. Open, with the leader at 12 under and a record 42 players under par, was unrecognizable.
“It looks like a PGA Tour event course setup,” he said. “I’m not sure where the days of the 24- to 29-yard-wide fairways that we played every time went. It’s interesting to see where the USGA has gone with the U.S. Open, being a little more friendly than in years’ past.”
Whenever he’s been asked about Tiger Woods’ quest for 19 majors, Jack Nicklaus always said that no one wants to see their records broken. That’s human nature.
But Miller seemed unconcerned about his place in golf history, confident that his famed round at Oakmont would stand the test of time, even if his mark was eventually toppled.
“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 called the conditions here the “perfect storm for a good score.” The sprawling, linksy design was the first par-72 Open course since 1992. The widest fairways in tournament history gave big hitters the freedom to bash away with driver. And the rain-softened greens allowed players to go pin-seeking with their iron shots and, in Thomas’ case, even with 3-woods.
“The course wasn’t designed to be soft, and if it was going to be soft, it should have been 26- or 27-yard-wide fairways,” Miller said. “That’s what made it easy. The guys weren’t afraid to bomb it.
“It was never that way in the U.S. Open. It was always about really tight fairways and having to be a great driver. This went totally against the tradition of the U.S. Open.”
Even Thomas, who is at 11-under 205, one shot back, conceded that the usual uncomfortableness of the U.S. Open has been lacking this week.
“It’s what the USGA and U.S. Open is known for is making you hate yourself and hate golf and just really struggle out there,” he said. “But it’s different being like this. Just being in a U.S. Open and seeing and hearing so many birdies. Usually those roars are for pars, but it’s fun.”
Thomas, of course, was focused less on Miller and more on trying to shoot 62, the barrier that still has never been broken in major championship golf. After going out in 31 – highlighted by his mini-golf, 90-degree birdie on No. 5 – Thomas set his sights on history when he blasted a 3-wood to 6 feet on the drivable 15th. He missed the short eagle putt, but he tacked on a 25-footer for birdie on 17.
Needing an eagle on the last to knock Miller off his perch, Thomas had 299 yards to the flag. He smoked a high cut that landed on the front edge and rolled out to 8 feet.
“I knew he could get it there,” said Jonathan Randolph, who was paired with Thomas on Saturday. “But I didn’t know he could hit it that high and that soft.”
Thomas raised his putter and walked in the eagle putt to break the record.
“A 63 for a par 72 is a heck of a score,” Miller said, “even if it was the Milwaukee Open.”
In the media tent afterward, Thomas was asked what he would say to Miller the next time he saw him.
“I don’t know, but I’ll be pretty happy,” Thomas said. “I wish he was calling it just to hear what he would have said.”
Considering Johnny’s candor, perhaps it was best he was not.