Coming into the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, the sense of daunting was palatable. Oakmont was well used to the its staring role on the nation’s most prominent national stage and it carried with it more than just the pedigree of having hosted four national championships. As the sight of Hogan’s last U.S. Open victory in 1953 and Nicklaus’ first, in 1962 (in a playoff over Arnold Palmer), the course also carried with it a reputation for sporting America’s fastest greens and fairways that were so narrow that even the U.S.G.A. had to ask the membership to widen two fairways in preparation for the National Championship.
The course, while only modestly longer (27 yards) than it had been for its last Open in 1962, had bunkers that were legendary, if not only for their unique variety, but for this Open, their pure quantity, at 187, an increase of 33. What’s more, the 17th hole, a previously short par-4 (292 yards), which Hogan had driven in 1953 and Palmer in 1962, had been lengthened to 322 yards and the fairway contoured from right to left to bring bunkers into to play for an overly aggressive line.
The story lines for this Open centered on the game’s reining icon, Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus would be attempting to win his fourth U.S. Open, tying him with his hero, Bobby Jones for U.S. Open titles, but surpassing him in total “majors” won at 14 (Jones’ majors included U.S. and British Amateurs, in keeping with the mentality from the era in which he competed). In addition, as any western Pennsylvania golf fan would easily recall, Nicklaus’ victory in 1962 came at the hands of their own, Palmer, and in 1973, at the age of 43, the great man still possessed enough of a game to claim revenge.
While the weather for the opening round was perfect for playing the game of golf, the golf course had awaken that morning in a spiteful mood. Having dried out somewhat from rain earlier in the week, the course was drying out and starting to run. In order to score at Oakmont, the ball must be played to the proper spot on its large and undulating greens, all the harder to do when finite ball control is difficult to achieve. To the shock of nearly everyone, 1965 Champion Gary Player would finish the day having posted an impressive 67, some three shots clear of his closets pursuers, Jim Colbert, Ray Floyd and Lee Trevino. Player’s mark was the lowest single round for a U.S. Open at Oakmont up until that time. What made Player’s 4-under-par performance all the more remarkable was the fact that due to his February bladder surgery, Player had played in only three tournaments over the preceding five months!
In every great story, some element of mystery always seems to find its place. Such was the case on the Thursday night after the first round. It has been stated that the intention of the tournament committee and the grounds crew had been to water the thirsty greens only for five minutes, just enough to give them a sip of satisfaction, but not enough to change their cruel disposition. For reasons that have remained unclear, the water was not turned off after five minutes and the greens, by Oakmont standards, became like sponges. Most likely caused by simple human error, the effect on the second round of the tournament was dramatic as the players attacked the defenseless lamb-greens like a pack of wolves.
A club professional from East Norwich, Long Island, named Gene Borek, who got in as an alternate when Dave Hill withdrew, sent an early message about the changing fortunes of the course when he fired a new course record 65 in the morning. Whereas the day before, only four men broke par, more than four times that number would post red numbers on Day 2. It is interesting then, that Gary Player, who had excelled in the difficult conditions a day earlier, would muster only a 1-under-par performance in the second round. However, he would still hold the 36-hold lead at 5 under par, one stroke ahead of Colbert. Nicklaus was three shots off he lead and Palmer was five shots back. Palmer continued to electrify the crowd, identically matching pars for birdies with eight each through the first two rounds.
If tournament officials had hoped that Mother Nature would help rescue them from their green miscue, they were sadly mistaken. Saturday morning brought with it a storm that dropped heavy rain on the course, but the skies cleared up enough by 10:20 AM for the first starting time to tee off on schedule. The rain would continue to come back, off and on, throughout the rest of the day continuing the trend from the day before and causing the greens to lose a strong element of their defense. The inevitable rust in Gary Player’s game was finally forced from the shadows on Day 3 and conditions that would lend one to believe it should have been the opposite; he shot a 6-over-par 77, four shots off the pace. By the end the day, Arnold Palmer would own a share of the lead with 1952 and 1963 U.S. Open Champion Julius Boros, who was 53-years-old (and already the oldest man to win a major championship when the won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48), Jerry Heard and John Schlee. Tom Weiskopf, who would win the (British) Open Championship one month later, was one stroke behind.
With Palmer tied for the lead, the level of excitement for the final round had reached a fevered pitch. Everyone expected Arnold Palmer to come out firing at every pin as the volatile mixture of this being the area where he was from, the sense of the event owing him something from ’62 and the reality that Palmer was not getting younger and this could be one of his last chances to contend, were all ingredients of the gumbo. What’s more, no one expected Jack Nicklaus to roll over, to the contrary, the golf world awoke that Sunday morning expecting nothing less that another epic battle. What the golf world got was perhaps the greatest final round of a major, of all time.
Two time PGA TOUR winner Johnny Miller awoke on Sunday morning six shots from the leaders and separated by twelve hungry men. While he had posted eight top-10 finishes so far that season, he had not had a victory and his most recent U.S. Open performance hardly gave him reason to be confident. One year earlier, at the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (won by Nicklaus), Miller shot a disappointing 79 to finished seventh. He informed his wife to be packed and ready to go immediately following his final round because after a 5-over-par 76 the day before, a day when the rest of the leaders were moving the other direction, he was merely managing his expectations.
On the practice tee, Miller claimed that an unrelenting voice within him was urging him to open his stance, even beyond that employed by Lee Trevino. It was a compulsion that he would acquiesce to.
Miller would start the final round one hour ahead of the leaders. A 5-iron set up birdie on the first hole, a nearly jarred 9-iron on the second, and another 5-iron on the third hole (and 25-foot putt). Quickly, he was 3 under on the day. It didn’t stop there. He made birdie from the greenside bunker at the par-5, fourth hole and all of a sudden, standing now at 1 under par, the thought of winning this golf tournament did not seem so foreign to him.
A sense of reality set in during the middle of his front nine with pars on the fifth, sixth, and seventh holes. He three-putted the eighth hole for bogey and dropped to 3 under for the day and even par for the Championship. A birdie on the short, par-5, ninth hole would get him back on track.
He would par the 10th hole then wedge his approach to 15 feet at the 11th hole for another birdie to move to 5 under for the day, 2 under for the tournament and within striking distance of the lead.
About this time, the leaders were finishing up their front nine in what was a hectic and frenzied final round. Veterans Palmer and Boros continued to fight the good fight and through nine, they held a share of the lead with Tom Weiskopf, with Lee Trevino among the players only a stroke back. As there seems to be a modern perception that players tend to fall off the pace on the final day of majors, the first nine holes of this U.S. Open was proving to be a slugfest.
Some measure of adversity would strike Miller at the 603-yard, par-5, 12th hole. His drive would find the rough and the most club he could get on the ball was a 7-iron from this lie. He would now need to hit a 4-iron to reach the putting surface. Miller would stick it to within 15 feet and convert the putt. He now stood at 6 under for the day and 3 under for the tournament.
Word of Miller’s historic pace began to filter through the course and in an attempt to catch history in the making, the gallery started to surge across the foot bridge that spanned the Pennsylvania Turnpike to catch a glimpse. So determined were the frenzied legions that some even crawled across the foot-wide railing as traffic zoomed past beneath them.
Miller’s 4-iron proved to be an asset again on the 13th Hole when he used it to laser his approach to 5 feet and convert yet another birdie. Now, he stood at 7 under for the day, and 4 under for the tournament, tied for the lead with Palmer.
He left his birdie putt on the 14th hole an inch from dropping, thus setting up the 15th hole for appropriate drama. This hole was a 453 yard, par-4, that is not only intimidating for its length in 1973, but for its 34-yard wide fairway and bunkers on each side. Playing as if fate had found its hero, Miller hit his drive some 275 yards and stuck his trusty 4-iron shot to within 10 feet of the pin. His birdie putt split the hole and with it, he owned sole possession of the lead at 5 under par for the Championship and 8 under for the day’s round.
Behind him, Palmer’s fortunes began to unravel on the 11th Hole. Sitting only 4 feet from the hole to go to 5 under for the tournament, Palmer would miss the putt. After what looked like a perfect drive on the 12th hole, he would be shocked to find his ball had kicked into heavy rough and he would end up bogeying the hole, followed by bogies on holes 13 and 14.
Miller would par the par-3, 16th hole with a 3-wood and two putts, he would also par the par-4, 17th hole utilizing a 1-iron, wedge and two putts, and then on the par-4, 18th hole, Miller unleashed a huge drive (and final exclamation point) leaving him only a 7-iron to get home and two puts later (his birdie putt would spin out of the hole), he would post a score of 63, the lowest ever in a U.S. Open (it would be matched by Nicklaus and Weiskopf in 1980 at Baltusrol).
Now forced to wait out the players still on the course, Miller knew his fate was no longer in his hands. In a gritty performance, Schlee had crawled his way back to within one stroke of Miller and would need a birdie on the 18th hole to tie. Schlee’s approach shot rolled through the green into a patch of difficult rough some 40 feet from the pin. With Miller closely watching, Schlee was unable to coax the ball to the hole and he tapped in for par, finishing with an even par, 71. Now, only Tom Weiskopf (who missed a short putt on the 17th Hole) could catch Miller and he would have to jar his second shot at 18 to do it. When the unlikely failed to happen, Johnny Miller had won his first U.S. Open.
Miller would finish the day with a 32 on the front, a 31 on the back side and having hit every green in regulation.
When it was all done, Schlee finished in second place, Weiskopf in third and Palmer, Trevino and Nicklaus tied for fourth.