Though movie trilogies could be triggered by all of Oakmont’s horror stories, the wild card comes at the top of the leaderboard. For all of Oakmont’s frightening reputation, for all its cloak and dagger claustrophobia where any hole can result in an eight, it also surrenders record low scores. As we’ll be reminded every day by NBC, in 1973 Johnny Miller set a U.S. Open record with his blistering 63 on Sunday to surge to the championship.
Interestingly, Art Spander of Golf Observer and the San Francisco Examiner, reminisced poignantly of that performance. “Evidence that the week would be anything but normal arrived early on Tuesday afternoon. A storm out of the pages of the Last Judgment exploded upon the golf course in such force a section of the press tent, seemingly a bulwark against the elements, crashed down upon the occupants as bewildered as they were soaked.” Of course, the members of Oakmont were even more bewildered on Sunday – covered in confusion as their gallows of a golf course was turned into a dance floor by the devil-may-care Miller.
Most people know about Miller’s 63, but few remember the prequel to the magic. As Parascenzo wrote, “If Rodgers left the ’62 Open in a little tree, then Miller nearly left it in his other pants.” Miller fired 71-69 the first two days thanks to his trusty yardage book and notes. As he prepared to tee off on Saturday, Miller opened his golf bag to get the book. After rifling through the bag like a frustrated purse-snatcher realizing the old lady he robbed had only $3.98 on her, Miller realized to his horror he had left the book in the pants he wore the day before. He went five-over for the first six holes and carded an ugly 76.
Miller didn’t make the same mistake twice. Indeed, he channeled his frustration into the greatest Sunday charge in U.S. Open history. In a Ray Kienzl Pittsburgh Press article from the ’83 Open, members from back in the ’80’s reminisced about 1973. “Some of the fellows’ blood bled,” noted long-time member Buck Schiano. “The right weather makes this course a lot harder or easier. I wish they’d let the rough grow. I think what he shot was a helluva round and so was the 65 by [Gene] Borek in the second round. This is not a long course by today’s standards. But we want to see them play Oakmont under the conditions we play it. Our members are playing to harder pin positions every day than they do in the Open.” The next year, the USGA exacted a terrible revenge as Hale Irwin won at 7-over 287.
Cut to 1983 and, once again, there’s a U.S. Open record. Larry Nelson holed a miraculous 62-foot putt across the 16th green for the birdie that proved the wining margin over Tom Watson. Nelson finished at 4-under 280, but played the final 36 holes in a record 65-67 – 132. Try that at Winged Foot!
The low scores continued into the ’90s. Astonishingly, a 54-year-old Jack Nicklaus fired an opening-day 69 in 1994. Young newcomer Ernie Els fired a 5-under score to claim his first major.
The U.S. Open is not the only tournament to fall victim to the hullabaloo surrounding Oakmont’s severe reputation. In the ’78 PGA Championship, John Mahaffey finished 68-66 and Jerry Pate went 66-68 to catch Tom Watson and force the playoff that Mahaffey won.
Why? In all those cases, the weather was key. First, in ’73 and ’78 the course was softened by constant rain. The greens were slowed to a reasonable speed and shots did not run too far off the greens or fairways.