US OPEN

WHY THEY CAN’T BREAK 63

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IF YOU AP­PRE­CI­ATE METAPHOR, the best one in golf is Charles Price’s tightrope: “Tour­na­ment golf is when they raise the rope to 60 feet,” he wrote. “Cham­pi­onship golf is when they take the net away.” But if you pre­fer num­bers, con­sider this: Since 1977, there have been 29 scores of 60 or bet­ter in reg­u­lar PGA Tour events (23 60s and six 59s). In the four ma­jor cham­pi­onships each year since 1973, the low­est score – shot 27 times – is 63. In a reg­u­lar tour­na­ment, 63 doesn’t get much at­ten­tion. At the 2014 Hu­mana Chal­lenge, Pa­trick Reed shot three con­sec­u­tive 63s. But if that num­ber is shot “when they take the net away,” we pay at­ten­tion. Forty-three years ago, Johnny Miller red the rst 63 in a ma­jor, at the 1973 US Open at Oak­mont, where the cham­pi­onship re­turns in June. Ever since, no one has done bet­ter. Or, as we shall see, as well. The score of 62 in a ma­jor has been threat­ened nu­mer­ous times, al­most as of­ten by those who ended up not shoot­ing 63 than by those who did. It looked like it might fall in the rst round of last year’s Masters, when Jor­dan Spi­eth was eight un­der par through 14 holes. But in­stead of birdieing the par-5 15th, his­tor­i­cally the eas­i­est hole at Au­gusta Na­tional, he bo­geyed it and nished with a 64. Then at St An­drews, where fears of the mod­ern game mak­ing the Old Course ir­rel­e­vant have in­tensi ed over the past decade, David Ling­merth went out in 29 in the rst round. But he came back in 40.

On those oc­ca­sions where it seemed 63 was cer­tain to be bro­ken, some­thing im­prob­a­ble on the 18th green kept it safe: ▶ In 1980, Jack Nick­laus missed a three­footer for 62 in the rst round of the US Open at Bal­tus­rol, telling The New York Times’ Dave An­der­son last year, “I just to­tally choked.” ▶ In 1986, Greg Nor­man three-putted from 28 feet at Turn­berry in the Open Cham­pi­onship, miss­ing a five-foot come­backer that also made him the only player to shoot 63 in a ma­jor with three bo­geys. ▶ On the same hole at Turn­berry in 1977, Mark Hayes drove into a pot bunker and missed a six-footer for par. ▶ At the 2013 PGA Cham­pi­onship at Oak Hill, Ja­son Dufner left his 10-footer for birdie two feet short. ▶ Tiger Woods’ 18-footer at South­ern Hills in the 2007 PGA lipped out so cru­elly he said his score was “62½.” ▶ Nick Price’s 30-footer for birdie at Au­gusta in 1986 went so far down, go­ing all around the cup, that he sur­mises “Bobby Jones’ hand came up and popped it out.”

Of course, in golf, no mat­ter what, the player be­lieves he left some­thing out there. “Some­day, some­one will birdie ev­ery hole for 54 and com­plain about an ea­gle putt that didn’t go in,” says Gary Player, not sur­pris­ingly the old­est to shoot 63 when he did it at 48 in the 1984 PGA at Shoal Creek. “I made a hel­luva lot of birdie putts that day. But the 12-footer I missed at the last stays in my mind.”

Even record rounds – maybe es­pe­cially record rounds – have coul­das and shoul­das. Only 12 of the 27 63s in ma­jors were achieved without a bo­gey.

Vi­jay Singh’s 63 in the 2003 US Open at Olympia Fields – only he and Nor­man have achieved the feat twice –in­cluded a three-putt from 15 feet and a missed eight-footer on the 17th. In the nal round of the 1995 PGA at Riviera, Brad Faxon missed three putts of ve feet or less. In the 2010 Open, Rory McIl­roy missed a ve-footer for birdie on the Road Hole. Isao Aoki had only 24 putts in shoot­ing eight un­der at Muir eld in 1980, but they in­cluded three missed six-foot­ers for birdies. A month be­fore, play­ing two groups ahead of Nick­laus in the US Open, Tom Weiskopf didn’t birdie ei­ther of Bal­tus­rol’s clos­ing par 5s in his 63.

Per­haps the player with the least re­gret is the most re­cent one to shoot 63 in a ma­jor, Hiroshi Iwata, at last year’s PGA at Whistling Straits. Iwata shot 29 on his clos­ing nine, play­ing the last eight holes in seven un­der par, and made a scram­bling par on his last hole, the 475me­tre, par-4 18th. He hit only 10 of 18 greens, had 22 putts and made birdies from o the green three times. But even Iwata had a bo­gey, on the par-4 ninth, the one time he failed to get up and down.

Iwata went on to nish T-21, which points to the ran­dom na­ture of hot rounds, even in ma­jors. Of the 63-shoot­ers in ma­jors (see chart), nine didn’t even

nish in the top 10.And only six won.

BREAK­ING DOWN MILLER’S 63

Which gets us back to Miller. He was 26 when he won at Oak­mont, yet to em­bark on his Jan­uary 1974 through Jan­uary 1975 run of 10 vic­to­ries – the last three by mar­gins of eight, 14 and nine strokes – that would es­tab­lish him as a his­toric golfer whose ca­pac­ity for “hot” has been matched only by Woods. But the seeds were planted with Miller’s 63, which still has more bona des than any other. It was shot in the cham­pi­onship de­signed to be the hard­est. The place was Oak­mont, his­tor­i­cally the tough­est of all US Open sites, which was then a par 71 (35-36), not the par 70 it rst be­came in 2007. It was shot in the last round, one Miller started six strokes be­hind the leader, trail­ing a pack of 12 golfers that in­cluded Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Player, Nick­laus, Julius Boros, Gene Lit­tler, Weiskopf and Jerry Heard. Miller took the lead on the back nine, end­ing his round with two birdie putts that lipped out.All told, it’s why the rst 63 re­mains the best.

Miller will tell you about it. His fre­quent ref­er­ences to the round – es­pe­cially as a com­men­ta­tor – have caused a back­lash. When he says things like, “I mean, it was sort of an easy 63 – pretty pure,” Miller, now 69, seems a vic­tim of “the older I get, the bet­ter I used to be” syn­drome. But his play­ing part­ner that day at Oak­mont, Miller Bar­ber, said, “It very easily could have been 60.” A closer look re­veals Miller’s round has mostly been un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

A LATE SWING KEY

Af­ter a third-round 76 that left him dis­cour­aged, Miller found a swing key late in his warm-up be­fore the nal round af­ter he heard a voice in his head say clearly, “Open your stance way up.”

“It wasn’t a sug­ges­tion, it was a com­mand,” says Miller, who has a mys­ti­cal streak he says em­anates from a long line of artis­tic peo­ple on his fa­ther’s side. On the other hand, af­ter the round he said he had used the same thought be­fore shoot­ing 63 in the fourth round of the Bob Hope Desert Clas­sic four months ear­lier, when he nished T-2 with Nick­laus in Palmer’s last PGA Tour vic­tory.

“I had a ten­dency to close my stance,” Miller says, “and that ad­just­ment did two things: It re­stricted my back­swing, which could get a lit­tle long, and freed up my down­swing so that I started ring my body much faster. I let my feet point way left, but my shoul­ders and the club were aimed right at the ag.”

Miller missed only two fair­ways – his pulled tee shot on the 551-me­tre 12th hole was his sole en­counter with deep rough, and he made an im­prob­a­ble birdie there af­ter hit­ting a 4-iron to 14 feet. But oth­er­wise play­ing from short grass, one of his­tory’s supreme iron play­ers hit all 18 greens, many with long irons. Nine of his full iron shots

nished within 15 feet of the hole, four of them get­ting in­side six feet. He had 29 putts – leav­ing him only 34 teeto-green shots; he hit the then-par-5 ninth in two – in­clud­ing a three-putt from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth hole.

Amaz­ingly, af­ter the round Miller said the mem­ory of a 7-iron shank he had hit on the 16th hole at Peb­ble Beach in a playo with Nick­laus the year be­fore had preyed on his mind. “Don’t shank – I was think­ing that on al­most ev­ery iron shot,” he said. Still, it was in­deed an easy 63.

TAK­ING ON THE DOUBTERS

Plenty of con­trar­i­ans have sought to di­min­ish Miller’s round through two com­mon but er­ro­neous as­sump­tions. The rst is that Oak­mont played in­or­di­nately easy be­cause it stayed soaked by rain and a mal­func­tion­ing sprin­kler sys­tem that was, de­pend­ing on the ac­count, ei­ther left on all night be­fore the start of the tour­na­ment or be­fore the last round.

Au­thor Adam Lazarus and Steve Schloss­man, a pro­fes­sor in the his­tory depart­ment at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, have re­futed those claims with

re­search for their 2010 book Chas­ing Great­ness: Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, and the Mir­a­cle at Oak­mont.The au­thors point out that Oak­mont, which lies in a val­ley near the Al­legheny River, is of­ten damp but be­cause of su­perb drainage and con­di­tion­ing rarely stays soggy for long.The only ap­pre­cia­ble rain oc­curred on Satur­day morn­ing, caus­ing the third round to be de­layed by two hours. A mal­func­tion did cause a new sprin­kler sys­tem to go on ac­ci­den­tally, but it was some­time in the pre-dawn hours of Fri­day. Fran­tic USGA o cials di­rected work­ers to use ev­ery towel avail­able to try to blot the mois­ture. By Fri­day and Satur­day af­ter­noons, Oak­mont was back to play­ing close to nor­mal, and the scores re ected as much. Bot­tom line, Miller played a full-blooded US Open setup on which only three other play­ers broke 70 in the nal round: Lanny Wad­kins with a 65, and Nick­laus and Ralph John­ston with 68s.

The sec­ond charge is that Miller was so far back start­ing the fourth round he could free­wheel without pres­sure. That might have been true at the start, but when he walked o the fth tee af­ter birdies on the first four holes, Miller knew he was only two strokes be­hind the lead­ers as they pre­pared to tee o .

The tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst who in­tro­duced the word “choke” to golf com­men­tary con­cedes that as a player, “pres­sure was my weak­ness,” and he be­gan putting ten­ta­tively on the next four greens, leav­ing four birdie putts short, the nal one lead­ing to the three-putt at the eighth. “That was good, in a way,” he says, “be­cause it got me mad and changed me from ner­vous to de­ter­mined. ”The rest of the round, Miller re­mained a ball-strik­ing ma­chine who putted as­sertively, start­ing with a two-putt birdie on the ninth.

“I’m proud of the way I nished,” says Miller, who birdied the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th holes – the last three with 4-iron ap­proaches – to shoot 31 on the more di cult nine. His to­tals for the day: nine birdies, eight pars and the lone bo­gey.

“It wasn’t like I was un­con­scious on the greens or chip­ping in,” he says. “I ad­mit I choked a lot on the greens, but I never choked tee to green. Down the stretch, it wasn’t like I started hit­ting weird shots and scram­bled to make par. I just kept hit­ting it at the ag. And on 18, which is a great driv­ing hole, I wasn’t try­ing to milk it down the fair­way. That was my best drive of the day, over 275 me­tres, my most ag­gres­sive swing, 195 kilo­me­tres per hour with a D-9 driver.” AL­MOST NINE STROKES GAINED TEE TO GREEN

In 2014, David Bar­rett of Golf World de­ter­mined that, by ap­ply­ing ShotLink’s “strokes gained tee to green” met­ric retroac­tively, Miller’s round is the stan­dard for ball-strik­ing over 18 holes. Based on the dis­tances his ap­proaches nished from the hole, Miller gained 8.90 strokes on the eld tee to green, bet­ter than the 8.71 Jim Furyk achieved in his 59 at the 2013 BMW Cham­pi­onship .“That was nice to hear ,” says Miller, let­ting the nal­ity of em­pir­i­cal data speak for it­self.

Among the other 63s in ma­jors that have been rated, Nor­man’s open­ing round at the 1996 Masters is the nextbest in strokes gained tee to green (6.71). In golf his­tory, Nor­man has the most im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of low rounds in ma­jors, his two 63s joined by three 64s (two of them in the last round, both of them in the Bri­tish Open).

“I was an ex­tremely good driver of the golf ball, so I’d hit that club where oth­ers wouldn’t and put my­self in po­si­tions where I could be re­ally ag­gres­sive,” Nor­man says. “At the same time, my short game gave me a cush­ion when I shot at pins. All that was more pro­nounced in ma­jors.”

Nor­man prefers his sec­ond round at Turn­berry in 1986,when he won his rst of two Open Cham­pi­onships. On a grey and blus­tery day in which the av­er­age score was over 74, Nor­man missed only one green and hit both par 5s in two to shoot 63. He has no re­grets about charg­ing his rst putt on the 18th.

“I thought I was go­ing to make the putt, which was the think­ing that got me so far un­der par,” he says. “I didn’t think about my score on the sec­ond putt, I just missed it.” Still, the fail­ure to prop­erly fin­ish off such an oth­er­wise supreme e ort could be con­sid­ered a mi­cro­cosm of Nor­man’s ca­reer.

All non-win­ning 63s are un­sung, but the most con­se­quen­tial and dra­matic among them be­longs to Faxon in the nal round of the 1995 PGA at Riviera. Faxon be­gan the day fo­cused on the low num­ber he would need to nish in at least a tie for sixth, which would give him enough points to make the US Ry­der Cup team in the nal qual­i­fy­ing round.

With an in­spired at­ti­tude and us­ing a con dent sen­sa­tion of con­nec­tion at the top of his swing that he’d worked on with David Lead­bet­ter, Faxon played the front nine in 28, ty­ing the all-time nine-hole score for a ma­jor, set by De­nis Dur­nian at the 1983 Open at Royal Birk­dale. Faxon hit the rst 17 greens and putted even more bril­liantly than nor­mal de­spite the three misses from short range. Af­ter a medi­ocre chip on the 18th hole, he faced a curl­ing 12-footer he gured he had to have. “I think the Ry­der Cup def­i­nitely took away any pres­sure from shoot­ing 63,” says Faxon, who nished fth to make the Amer­i­can team. “The ball and the sweet spot on my put­ter just sort of melted to­gether, and I poured it in.” COM­PAR­ING A 62 TO A 63

No one in­ter­viewed for this story ex­pressed any doubt that 62 (or lower) will be shot in a ma­jor rel­a­tively soon. But Faldo, for one, says he hopes the score lasts through his life­time. “I’m very proud that I nished o my 63 with one of the best 2-irons of my life, from 192 me­tres,” he said of his nal shot in the sec­ond round at St Ge­orge’s in 1993. “To­day that’s a 5- or 6-iron for these guys. I feel like I played in an era when the chal­lenge was greater, and that will be eas­ier to for­get if the num­ber goes lower.”

‘IT WASN’T LIKE I WAS UN­CON­SCIOUS ON THE GREENS OR CHIP­PING IN . . . . IT WASN’T LIKE I STARTED HIT­TING WEIRD SHOTS AND SCRAM­BLED TO MAKE PAR. I JUST KEPT HIT­TING IT AT THE FLAG.’

At the same time, all ac­knowl­edged that the main rea­son the scor­ing bar­rier has ex­isted so long is be­cause ma­jor­cham­pi­onship set­ups have con­tin­ued to get more di cult, osten­si­bly to keep up with the progress of mod­ern golf, marked by in­creased dis­tance, im­proved tech­nique, more ag­gres­sive play­ing style and deeper elds. Golf has the abil­ity to change the play­ing eld more than any other sport.

As statis­ti­cian Lu­cius Ric­cio, a pro­fes­sor of an­a­lyt­ics at Columbia Univer­sity, says, “In base­ball, the fences have stayed the same or been moved in. In golf, we move the fences back.”

The USGA’s Mike Davis and Kerry Haigh, who is in charge of the setup for the PGA Cham­pi­onship, ac­knowl­edge there is an ever-smaller mar­gin of er­ror in find­ing the bal­ance be­tween su ciently chal­leng­ing the play­ers and mak­ing the course un­fair. Both say they would ap­plaud the rst 62 in a ma­jor, but Davis adds that although he isn’t try­ing to pre­vent scores of 63 or lower, he doesn’t want a US Open setup to in­vite them, ei­ther. “Many years af­ter Johnny shot his 63 at Oak­mont, I asked P J Boatwright (long­time USGA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of rules and com­pe­ti­tions) if the very di cult setup the next year at Winged Foot was a di­rect re­ac­tion to that round,” Davis says. “P J smiled and said, ‘Well, I can tell you this: Af­ter that, we weren’t try­ing to make the golf cour­ses eas­ier.’ ”

Ric­cio iden­ti­fied some con­di­tions that would make a 62 in a ma­jor more prob­a­ble: ▶ A wet day at the PGA Cham­pi­onship, which has given up the most 63s (13). ▶ A wind­less round at an Open Cham­pi­onship links. ▶ A rst-time ma­jor venue (like Erin Hills at next year’s US Open), where di culty could be over­es­ti­mated. ▶ The rst or sec­ond round rather than the more pres­surised week­end (or, if on the week­end, by some­one to­ward the back of the pack). ▶ A par 70.

Of course, none of these con­di­tions ex­isted for Miller. Which is why as the years go by, his sat­is­fac­tion with the round grows.

“I knew I had some­thing spe­cial, but I hadn’t quite got­ten it out,” he says. “When you nally man­age to play golf the way you know you can un­der great pres­sure, that’s what feels the best, that’s what changes you as a player, that’s what stays with you. That was the best round I ever played, and, I gotta say it, the best round I ever saw.” No brag, just fact. Miller’s stands as the nest round of golf ever played. When the rst 62 in a ma­jor is nally shot, may it be as good as the rst 63.

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