News & Opinion

Spirit of ’76 at Birkdale: Johnny, Jack, Seve

Not much could match the drama of Johnny Miller’s record 63 in the closing round to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

But Miller’s only other major title was pretty memorable, too. He captured the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale with a 66 in the final round and won by six. At Oakmont, Miller outdueled rivals such as Lanny Wadkins and Arnold Palmer. At Birkdale, Miller beat the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite and a 19-year-old Spanish wonder who introduced himself to the world that week, Severiano Ballesteros.

The Open returns to Birkdale next week, and this is NBC’s second year of covering the event, so it should give Miller a nice chance to reminisce. Some nuggets from the ’76 Open:

Ballesteros, a future legend, had the American media baffled. Sports Illustrated provided a phonetic pronunciation in its coverage, “Severreeanno Bal-us-staire-us,” and got it wrong. It should have been more like “Buy-a-Stare-us.” New York Times writer John Radosta wrote that Miller “sounded more like a press agent for Ballesteros” because of his praise for the youngster and because he referred to him as “Sevvy.” 

Everybody deserves one mulligan. Dan Jenkins, the legendary Sports Illustrated golf writer, wrote, “The world may not hear more from Severiano Ballesteros, he of the strong left grip, the wristy swing, the whiplash of a full swing and the nose for always finding the golf ball in the bushes.” Oops; just missed by five major championships. Jenkins nailed his next sentence, however. “But the world heard what it has been waiting to hear from Johnny Miller since he sent everyone into collapse with his last-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open. Now he has a second major triumph and that is what he needed to go along with the royalty of his stride and the assumption – his own – that he belongs in a category with Jack Nicklaus.”

Ballesteros was at his spectacularly erratic best. Before the final round, Miller said, “I’m playing as good as I can play. I’m two shots behind Seve, but I have to consider I’m really in the lead. I have to think he’s going to hit the ball somewhere he can’t find it.” Ballesteros made a triple bogey at the 11th hole and shot 74 to fall into a tie for second with Nicklaus.

The New York Times noted how Ballesteros was adjusting to British golf vocabulary: “On the first day, he reported his distances in meters and since then, in deference to local custom, he has changed the measurements to yards. He hasn’t learned feet, though – he still calculates his putts in yards.”

Miller made an unusual claim last year in a pre-Open interview about his golf ball. “Hardly anybody knows this. I won the Open with a Surlyn cover ball,” Miller said. “I think I’m the only guy who ever won the Open with a Surlyn cover.” Surlyn was a tougher, more durable cover that was popular with recreational golfers but seldom used by tour players, who preferred the softer feel of balata. It was a standard-size ball, however, as the smaller British ball no longer was allowed in competition starting in 1974.

Birkdale almost burned down. The course was firm and fast and crispy due to a hot spell and a severe drought. Six brush fires started on the course, including one that delayed play Thursday for 30 minutes because it threatened the grandstand at the 18th hole, and smoke covered parts of the course. It was set off by a dropped cigarette. Nicklaus said he’d never been hotter at a major championship (he should’ve been in Tulsa for the 100-degree plus 2007 PGA Championship!), and Open player Peter McEvoy later wrote about a water shortage, how area shops ran out of soft drinks (bottled water came decades later); some women in nearby Surrey protested to stop local superintendents from watering greens and Yorkshire residents had to drink water from street hydrants.

Miller on the firm conditions: “You had to land the ball 10, 15, 20 yards short of the green. It was the ultimate ground-game championship.”

Nicklaus lost his regular Open caddie, Jimmy Dickinson, to a foot injury before the tournament. In part because he didn’t want to spend the money to fly his regular PGA Tour caddie, Angelo Argea, across the Atlantic, Nicklaus gave the job to his 14-year-old son, Jackie, who did an admirable job – Dad finished second, after all – after one minor glitch when he stepped in a hole and fell over backwards while shagging Dad’s iron shots on the practice ground. That’s right. Even in ’76, a caddie still had to shag his own player’s golf shots on the range. The Dark Ages.

Carl Higgins, a Dallas teaching pro, set a course record of 67 in the second round but followed it with 81 the next.

Miller was paired with Ballesteros in the third round’s final group, his first round with the young Spaniard. Both players struggled and shot 73. Miller’s assessment: “I let his scrambling get to me, and my own game went out of control. He’s a good kid, though. He wears Johnny Miller slacks.”

Call that a ringing endorsement of the 1976 Open.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle