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Getting beyond 63 at a major seems 'inevitable'

ESPN

Thirty-five years ago, on June 12, 1980, to be precise, Jack Nicklaus was chasing major-championship history. Playing the opening round of the U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club, he needed only convert a short birdie attempt on the par-5 closing hole to shoot the first 62 in a major.

He missed.

When he's asked three-and-a-half decades later to explain why the 63 barrier hasn't been broken, the Golden Bear simply looks inward: "Why do I think it hasn't? Because I missed a 2-foot putt at Baltusrol to break it. I choked."

Nick Price isn't as remorseful. His putt for a 62 on the final hole of the third round of the 1986 Masters -- from between 22 and 26 feet, he estimates now -- touched every part of the cup before mysteriously, inexplicably, failing to drop.

If he has one regret from that day, though, which might have kept him from solely owning a piece of golf history, it isn't that final birdie putt.

"I wish I hadn't bogeyed the first hole," he said. "But who knows? That may have gotten my tail up to shoot 63."

Tiger Woods can sympathize. In the second round of the 2007 PGA Championship, his birdie attempt on the final hole for that elusive 62 was halfway down before popping back out. The scene resembled something straight out of "Caddyshack" -- you could almost picture a furry gopher protecting his home by shooing the ball away.

When asked to describe why neither he nor any other golfer has been able to clear this hurdle, Woods doesn't point to imaginary gophers or golf gods or the mythical, mystical wizardry of the game.

"It's a major championship," he said. "They're supposed to be hard."

Since the first Open Championship in 1860, there have been a total of 434 editions of the four annual majors as we know them today.

In the modern era, starting in 1934 with the advent of the Masters Tournament, that number is 313. Add them up and (excluding the 23 years of match play at the PGA Championship through 1957) there have been 1,160 rounds.

That's 107,105 individual player rounds during this 82-year period.

Twenty-six times, someone has posted a round of 63.

Never has anyone fared better.

Shooting 59 has long been considered golf's magic number, but that barrier has been crossed a half-dozen times on the PGA Tour, once on the LPGA and ad nauseum in semi-professional and casual rounds around the world, with varying degrees of believability.

The real magic number is 62 in a major -- so magical that it's never happened.

"It's like the four-minute mile," said Tom Weiskopf, who shot his 63 two groups ahead of Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open.

Much like Roger Bannister's history-maker, Weiskopf and many others believe a 62 is not only inevitable, but will open the floodgates for copycats.

More on that later. First, a little history lesson.

Twenty-four different players have shot 63 in a major. The only two to do it twice? Greg Norman at the 1986 Open (which he famously won) and the 1996 Masters (which he famously didn't), and Vijay Singh at the 1993 PGA Championship and 2003 U.S. Open (neither of which he won).

Norman's round stands as one of only two 63s at the Masters; there have been four at the U.S. Open; eight at The Open; and 12 -- nearly half of them -- at the PGA Championship.

Seven have taken place in an opening round; 10 in a second round; five in a third round; and just four in the final round of a major.

Eight players finished outside the top 10 during a week they posted 63; of the 18 who did record a top-10 result, five finished runner-up. Only six players who shot 63 eventually won that week's major.

In the Venn diagram of champions and rounds, there is a lone figure who tallied his 63 on a Sunday to win -- and it just happened to be the first one. If you've watched televised golf over the past few decades, then you've probably heard about it, because Johnny Miller has never shied away from the topic.

"It's the standard by which final rounds are measured; there has never been a final round better than that one," Miller once said about his last 18 holes at Oakmont in the 1973 U.S. Open.

OK, so he's probably said it more than once.

The first to equal this feat of shooting 63 was Bruce Crampton, a good-but-not-great player who owned four runner-up major results, but never won. It started an arbitrary pattern. Shooting 63 in a major hasn't solely been the domain of legends. For every Nicklaus, there's been a Jodie Mudd; for every Woods, there's been a Michael Bradley.

"It's kind of neat to be in that company, but I would give that up to have their careers," said Bradley. "Those guys are the greatest to ever play the game."

Even the greatest have been rendered mortal when it comes to going low at a major. Never has anyone posted a 10-under round on a par-72 course, a 9-under round on a par-71 or an 8-under round on a par-70.

Theories abound as to why -- and some include a nod toward the supernatural.

"It makes you believe in the golf gods," said Brad Faxon, who posted his 63 in the final round of the 1995 PGA Championship.

Weiskopf agreed. "I'm a superstitious guy," he said. "I believe in that mystical bulls---."

Others are more pragmatic in their observations.

"Not only are the courses as difficult as any we play all year," said Steve Stricker, who shot 63 in the opening round of the 2011 PGA Championship, "I think there is that barrier when coming down the stretch, that you know no one has ever done it. That adds to it."

"It's more difficult as the round goes on," Bradley said. "There's more at stake. Traditionally the tougher holes are later in the rounds and not giving up the birdies. You rarely see rounds where a guy was 1-under through eight and goes on a tear on the back nine."

Even Faxon, believer in those merciless golf gods, understands this rationale.

"The obvious theory is that the golf courses are set up much more difficult at a major," he said. "There are pressures in majors more than a regular tournament -- and now, people think about it. You don't go into a U.S. Open thinking, 'I can go shoot 62.' You're just thinking about how tough the course is. Your mindset is that par is a good number."

Most members of Club 63 interviewed for this story insist that their record-tying low round at a major remains one of the most memorable and satisfying days of their career.

Faxon takes it one step further.

"I love talking about it," he said, "because it was probably the most meaningful round I ever played."

Twenty years ago this week, Faxon entered the final round not only in a share of 20th place, but outside the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list, with the automatic berths to be determined at day's end. Before the round, noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who was working with him at the time, left him with these parting words: "Give yourself a chance."

Faxon eagled the par-5 opening hole, birdied the third, fifth, sixth and seventh, then rolled in a 20-footer on the ninth to post a front-nine 28.

"When I made it, everyone started yelling, 'Fifty-nine!'" he said. "That's when you get excited, that's when you get nervous."

By the end of the round, he'd missed a pair of 5-foot birdie putts, but a 15-footer on the closing hole clinched the 63, giving him a solo fifth-place finish and a spot on the Ryder Cup roster.

"After the round, [playing partner] Jose Maria Olazabal hugged me," he said. "I don't think he's a hugging kind of guy, but he saw me play the round of my life."

The Old Course at St. Andrews is affectionately known as "The Home of Golf." Its tradition steeped in centuries of competition, the venerable links has hosted The Open a record 29 times, making it the second-most popular major venue behind Augusta National.

Only twice on those 29 occasions has the Old Course yielded a 63. Once was five years ago, when a 21-year-old wunderkind named Rory McIlroy overpowered the course during a wind-free opening round. The other time was in 1990, when Paul Broadhurst, who would win eight professional tournaments in his career and never record a top-10 result in a major, posted a brilliant Saturday score.

"I can remember most things about my 63: Teeing off at 10 a.m. with David Graham in front of a few spectators and finishing the final few holes in front of thousands; birdies at 1 and 3 and then six [in a row] from 5 to 10 to be 8 under after 10 holes," said Broadhurst, who would finish T-12 that week. "From there, I had seven straight pars until 18, where I hit a sand wedge to 18 inches and tapped in for my ninth birdie and the 63. Such a special moment to do that at The Home of Golf, in front of a packed grandstand on the 18th.

"Graham shot 69 and commented to me afterwards that he felt like he'd shot 80. Praise, indeed."

When it comes to getting overshadowed, Weiskopf might own the record.

His 63 didn't just tie for the low score of that day, he tied with a global icon who would later that week capture his 16th career professional major.

Just like Nicklaus did on the same day, though, Weiskopf stumbled late in his round.

"Someone said, 'If you just make birdie on one of those two par-5s, you'll shoot 62,'" Weiskopf said of the quirky Baltusrol closing holes. "But 17 wasn't reachable for me and 18 you had to lay up off the tee if you had any golf intelligence, then you'd have a chance to reach it with a strong 3-wood uphill to a small green that was well-bunkered."

Instead, he made par on each of those final holes -- exclusively holding low round of the day honors for about 20 minutes.

Not that he'd considered any historical ramifications while on the course.

"I didn't think about 62 ever," he said. "Or even 63, to tell the truth. I was just trying to play golf."

Over and over, 26 times now, players have spoken similar words. Some, like Nicklaus, believe they could have -- or maybe should have -- fared better; others consider it flawless, the greatest round of their lives.

Not a single one, though, has admitted to setting a super-low target score and trying to reach it.

"Maybe that's what it takes," said Weiskopf. "Someone who says, 'I'm going to do it. I'm in position to be that first person and I'm going to do it.'"

When asked whether this barrier, one which has stood for 155 years, 434 majors and thousands upon thousands of rounds, will ever be surpassed, one word serves as the popular response.

"I think it's inevitable that a 62 will happen eventually," Broadhurst said.

"It's inevitable," said Weiskopf. "Records are made to be broken."

"Yes, it's inevitable," said Bradley. "These young kids have too much power; they're too good."

The era of longball hitters dialed into superior technology will inevitably -- there's that word again -- result in a player on a calm day, perhaps playing a shorter par-70 track, finally reaching golf's real magic number.

This story likely won't end, though, when the first 62 is posted to a major scorecard.

"I wouldn't be surprised if someone goes right past 62 and straight to 61," Price said. "It's just a matter of time, as far as I'm concerned."

When it does, it just might signify the end of an era -- an era of 155 years and counting during which golf wasn't easy, when the greatest legends on the greatest courses in the greatest tournaments could never muster better than a 63.

Among those who understand this notion is the man who still insists his bid for a 62 fell short because he choked.

The all-time leading major winner, Nicklaus started his career long before the first 63 and believes he'll live to see the next era, as well.

"It just hasn't happened, but it will," he said of the record. "It used to be 64. Then it became 63. And it will become 62."