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Johnny Miller back at Birkdale, scene of overlooked major

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SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — Johnny Miller set the course record, even more impressive because it was the final round of a major championship. It also was the lowest final round ever recorded by the champion.

And he hardly ever talks about it unless someone asks him.

No, this wasn't his famous 63 in the final round at Oakmont to win the 1973 U.S. Open.

It was no less special. Two shots behind going into the final round at Royal Birkdale in the 1976 British Open, Miller put on another exhibition with his irons, pulled away with an eagle and birdies on the back nine and closed with a 66 for a six-shot victory and his second major championship.

Why is it so overlooked?

For starters, his 63 at Oakmont for 44 years was the lowest closing round by a major champion until Henrik Stenson matched it last year at Royal Troon. And even though Miller was at the peak of his powers — that British Open was his 16th victory in three years — this was as much about the future.

The teenager he was chasing down in the final round was 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros, the Spaniard with a bold game and magical touch around the greens. Ballesteros hit the most memorable shot of that Open, chipping out of the rough between two pot bunkers on the final hole for a birdie.

"The thing so great about Birkdale was not just winning, but the relationship I built with Seve after that," Miller said. "It seemed like everywhere I went overseas, they paired me with Seve. We had a pretty darn close relationship. I had his respect, and he had mine. The whole week was really special."

Jack Nicklaus also tied for second, one of 19 runner-up finishes in the majors, though he never seriously challenged. This was about the handsome young Spaniard who slashed away with his driver, found the ball, and ripped it again.

"I was paying attention to him because he was a good-looking guy and had that big old swing — big, full backswing — and slashed at it," Miller said.

Miller, for once, played more like Nicklaus. The turf was so dry and fast from a heat wave in England that Miller opted to hit 1-iron most of the week, and once he was in the fairway, he was the best iron player in golf at the time.

Miller believes he only won two majors because his putter couldn't stand up to the pressure in the majors, and he took too many risks.

"I tried to play the majors like the Phoenix Open, and that didn't work too well," he said. "I probably should have watched how Jack did it, and the way Tiger (Woods) copied Jack."

Ballesteros and Miller each shot 73 in the third round, and the Spanish teen kept his two-shot lead. But not for long. The more he hit into the thick grass along the dunes of Royal Birkdale, the more trouble Ballesteros invited until it started to cost him. Even with the brilliance of that chip on the 18th, he shot 74.

Ballesteros was just starting to make a name for himself in Europe — it would be another month before he won his first European Tour title with an eight-shot victory in the Dutch Open —and he captured his first major three years later at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

"I didn't know what to think about Seve," Miller said. "I was enjoying watching him. But I knew I could beat him if I got it going. I 1-ironed it to death off the tee. Get me in the fairway, and my iron game was pretty good. Seve hit driver all the time. He was an aggressive player The last day, the pressure of winning The Open at 19, his driver went all over the place."

The importance of the 1976 British Open for Miller was not beating Ballesteros or Nicklaus, who had denied Miller a year earlier at the Masters. It was not getting labeled a one-time major champion like Tom Weiskopf or Lanny Wadkins.

Miller was hearing criticism that for all his victories on the PGA Tour, he had only one major.

"Winning a major is one thing. Winning again validates you a little more," he said.

There's another reason his second major gets so little attention. Miller never had occasion to talk much about it. For nearly three decades, he has been the "call it like I see it" voice of golf for NBC Sports, and for 20 years, NBC had the U.S. Open.

That ended when Fox Sports was awarded the USGA contract. But the void was quickly filled for Miller, and he couldn't have been more thrilled. Two years after losing the U.S. Open, NBC picked up the British Open starting last year at Troon. Miller knew Royal Birkdale was next.

The Open has been held at Birkdale four times since Miller won, and he played it only one time, missing the cut in 1991.

"I'm excited to go back there," he said. "I remember a lot of the holes, but I don't remember every hole perfectly. I'm looking forward to seeing the course. I believe it's an accuracy course. It's been bomb-and-gouge — bomb the driver out there, doesn't matter where it goes, hit your 9-iron out in the rough, hack it onto the green. That's probably not going to work this week."

Miller knows that from experience. And he'll probably talk plenty about it.

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