Johnny Miller "thinks" Arnold Palmer’s gotten over it. He "thinks" he’s accepted what happened and has come to terms with it.
He shouldn’t be too sure about that.
As fierce a competitor as there ever was, it’s unlikely Palmer will ever get over the sinking feeling he had while standing on the 11th green at Oakmont C.C. on June 17, 1973. Palmer’d started the final round tied for the lead with Julius Boros, John Schlee and Jerry Heard. Still leading with Boros, he was convinced he was cruising to his second Open championship victory in front of legions of adoring Palmer loyalists from throughout western Pennsylvania. The He was certain the hometown victory would ease the sting of the historic loss he felt on that very course to Jack Nicklaus 11 years earlier.
And that’s when he looked up at the scoreboard and saw that a 26-year-old -- go ahead and say it -- “smart alec kid” had posted an Open record final-round 63 on rain-softened greens to vault to the top of the leaderboard and eventual victory.
“I really blindsided him with that,” says Miller, today the outspoken color commentator for NBC Sports. Miller will be in the broadcast booth starting Thursday as the network begins its coverage of the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He made his comments about Palmer on Tuesday following a press conference with more than 100 reporters. “He must have felt like I’d picked his pocket and come up with a U.S. Open trophy.”
Gotten over it? Nah.
Oakmont pro Bob Ford says he and Palmer played a sentimental round at the course in July 2006 and Palmer recalled exactly where on the 11th green he was standing when he, Boros and Schlee saw the record-setting round Miller’d posted.
“He said he couldn’t believe it,” Ford said. “It just shocked him.”
It was the second of three consecutive shockers Palmer would feel on day when things went awry. He'd missed a short birdie putt on 11 before seeing Miller's run of red numbers way down the leaderboard, and then he hit what appeared to be a perfect drive on 12 that kicked off a sprinkler head and into deep rough.
While Palmer had trouble accepting the fateful turns, Miller says with a dashing bit of bravado he embraced it.
“He never saw me coming,” Miller says. “Schlee told me his reaction to my score and it wasn’t pleasant. You have to understand, I was paired with Palmer for the first two days of the tournament and must not have impressed him. But that was one of the best parts of the week for me. I held my own with him. Not many guys would ever win the Open playing two days with Arnold Palmer in 1973 for the first two days. I ran the gauntlet of those fans and shot 69-71 during the first two days. A lot of guys have trouble even making the cut under those conditions. To be able to do that with all his fans around was almost, to me, as much pressure as anything that happened all week. Maybe that prepared me for Sunday, to be honest with you.
“Because not many guys could play with Palmer in those days. It was definitely tougher than playing with Tiger today. That’s what playing with Palmer in Pittsburgh in 1973 was like.”
While nearly every golf fan remembers Miller’s 63, few recall his 76 the day before, a round that almost knocked him out of contention. He began the final round in five-way tie for seventh place.
“For me, one of the things that makes that round so special was the caliber of players I had to beat,” Miller says. “The leaderboard had Nicklaus, Boros, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Gene Littler and Palmer all playing at or near the top of their games.”
Funny, several days after his landmark victory, Palmer and Miller were again paired and once again Miller did something that confounded Palmer.
Call it an “ace-ssist.”
“We were paired together on the 230-yard par 3 5th hole at Firestone Country Club in Akron at the American Golf Classic,” Miller recalls. “I was holding a 4 wood and was all ready to hit when Arnie dropped his ball. I backed away, he apologized, I readjusted then stepped up and hit. The ball landed about five feet in front of the pin and rolled in just like a putt. Then I turned to Palmer and thanked him for his help. Maybe readjusting made the difference between an ace and just another really good shot.
“I don’t think I was his favorite guy back then, but good things were happening to me when I was around Arnold Palmer in June 1973.”
Miller points out that two of Palmer’s most painful losses -- the one to him and the one to Billy Casper at the 1966 U.S. Open -- occurred at the hands of practicing Mormons, prompting Miller to quip, “He may have gotten over it, but I doubt you’ll see any ‘Mitt Romney for President’ stickers on Arnold Palmer’s car. We Mormons haven’t been too kind to him.”
Incidentally, Miller’s final round comeback from six shots down is only the second greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.
Whose is first?
Arnold Palmer’s. He came from seven shots down on the final day to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.