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A Profile of Johnny Miller
We all know, from his television commentary with the American network NBC, that Johnny Miller can talk the talk, but for a time in the mid-1970s he also walked the walk – perhaps better than anyone who has ever set foot on a golf course.
Everyone he competed against, including Nicklaus, Watson, Weiskopf and Trevino, knew that if Miller got hot, he was unbeatable, and that even on an off day he was still very good. Nicklaus said of him, “The player who consistently hit his short irons closer to the hole than anyone I’ve ever seen was Johnny Miller in his prime. There were parts of his game, especially the short irons, that were better than mine.’
Meanwhile, Watson, who played with Miller as he shot a final-round 61 to win the Tucson Open in 1974, said: “That was the best round of pure golf I’ve ever seen.” To which Miller replied: “For the last 12 months I have played better than anyone in the world.”
And so he had, but his was an improbable and rapid rise to prominence, followed by an even more rapid decline into, if not mediocrity, then at least fallible human standards.
When he was 10, his older brother, with whom he was very close, drowned while swimming in the Pacific and his body was not found for several weeks. To help Johnny cope with the devastating loss, his father installed a mat in the basement where the grief-stricken boy could hit golf balls all day if he chose. It paid off to the extent that in 1966, at the age of 20, Johnny went to the US Open in San Francisco with the intention of getting a job as a caddy. He reluctantly entered the final qualifiers and took the field as a player, before finishing eighth.
He went on to capture 24 US Tour titles, with eight of his wins coming in one season, 1974, and one of those wins, the Tucson Open, was by 14 strokes against one of the strongest fields of the year. . He also won two Majors, the 1973 US Open at Oakmont, considered one of the toughest of all American venues, and the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, where he held off a 19-year-old debutant named Seve Ballesteros. But it was the US Open that really made his name, as he won it with a final round of 63, which remains the best final round to win a Major, and could have been better.
He later said: ‘So I birdie the first four and immediately start hurling. I also know exactly what is going on. I hit it at eight feet to five and leave it short, right on the heart. On eight, I hit a big 4-wood there, 30 feet under the hole. I leave the birdie putt three feet short and then miss it.
“I kept hitting it hard – three feet, four feet, nine feet. If Watson had decided for me, it could have been a 58.’
Final-round or weekend charges were a Miller specialty, for apart from that memorable final day at Oakmont, his Open triumph in 1976 was courtesy of a fourth-round 66, and the year before, in one of the Masters greatest ever, he fell short of Jack Nicklaus by one stroke after playing the weekend in 65, 66.
Miller said that peace of mind comes from knowing that even your worst shot is going to be pretty good, and for a while in his prime, if he ‘missed’ an iron more than three feet out of line, he would go crazy . His swing was so crisp and clean that he could hit an 8-iron, say, a 7, 8 or 9 iron, with some slight variations that were almost imperceptible to the spectators. This was a trick he liked to reserve for those players who tried to control which club he was using on the third point. So he would purposely hit an 8-iron and a 9-iron and then watch in delight as the other guy air-struck the green.
During those glory years between 1973-6, Miller had it all – blonde good looks, talent to burn and an innate curiosity about life, golf and people, which he has continued to show in his work television. But of all the golf comets that have burst into our skies, his was the brightest, but the shortest, and as quickly as the magical talent appeared, it disappeared.
There are three main reasons. First, he was a lifelong sufferer of yps – despite being as hot as anyone when he was in a streak – so to compensate he simply hit his approach shots even closer to the flag. He freely admits that the reason he has only played twice on the US Champions Tour (Seniors) is that he still struggles with yps. So bad are they that even in his prime, he once painted a dot on the bottom of his grip, and instead of looking at the clubhead, he stared at the dot throughout the swing.
He confesses that his worst time was in a 1977 match against Jack Nicklaus for the television series Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. He matched Nicklaus shot for shot – except for the wretched, embarrassing green, where he three-putted seven times. He said: “It was like holding a snake in my hands. I couldn’t make a tripod. There’s no worse feeling than standing on a short shot, knowing you have no chance of making it.’
Second, he says he spent a winter working on his farm in Utah cutting down trees, and when he returned to the course, his swing was gone, due to muscle build-up and loss of flexibility. He also believes that the change of club from MacGregor to Wilson in ’75 immediately slipped him two levels back, and is no doubt the reason for one of his wisest pieces of advice, still valid today, which is: “Once you find a group clubs, you like, stay with them until they break up.’
Third, and perhaps most important of all, he is a devoted family man and has always felt the narrow, obsessive world of high-flying sports, with its endless suitcases and hotel rooms, to be both tiresome and a little unhealthy for a healthy person. He grew bored with the traveling lifestyle of Tour golf and always had interests far broader than 72-hole tournaments. He is a devoted member of the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), has six children, and resented being away from them for long periods when they were young.
When he made the transition to television analyst, he gained instant fame by using one of his favorite words – ‘choke’. Miller confesses that he is a true authority, as it is a phenomenon he has studied with great interest throughout his life, because he believes he was a world-class choker.
He says: ‘I’ve choked myself so many times over the years it’s a joke. For me it wasn’t the result of a character flaw, it wasn’t that I lacked courage. Drowning is not that at all, it’s just stress manifesting mentally and physically.’
In 1990 he made his debut as a commentator at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. His good friend Peter Jacobsen faced a 225-yard shot over water from a downhill stretch on the 18th at Pebble Beach. Miller studied Jacobsen’s body language and all, before saying, “That’s absolutely the easiest choke shot I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The remark created an immediate furor—Jacobsen refused to speak to him for five months, only relenting after seeing a tape of the incident—and almost before he warmed the announcer’s chair, Miller was hearing loud calls for him to be fired. Now it’s hard to imagine the uproar – after all, he didn’t say Jacobsen was suffocating, or that he would cave to the pressure, just that the ingredients were there for it to happen. Over the coming weeks and months, an unflinching Miller continued to call it as he saw it, and American television viewers began to find that hearing an honest opinion was a refreshing change from the bland, impatient pap they’re usually served.
He has never held back his punches and the candor he has shown throughout his life, which he has gladly brought into the commentary booth, has made as many enemies as friends. But in fairness, he’s not abusive or vindictive in his comments, just as brutally honest as he’s always been, and in American society, especially on television, talking no nonsense is the exception rather than the rule.
His closest equivalent in sports commentary is probably John McEnroe – but Miller has an advantage here too, because throughout his career his game was not only astonishingly good, but his behavior was exemplary. Therefore, when he pulls Tiger Woods, for example, for cursing loudly (and repeatedly) in the 18th hole at Pebble Beach in the US Open, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy, because he was never heard to swear by yourself on a golf course. and yet fewer golfers have had greater justification for letting some epithets fly.
And Miller has continued to be as brutally blunt as he’s ever been. In March 2004, Craig Parry defeated Scott Verplank in a playoff for the Doral Championship in Miami by hitting a 176-yard 6-iron on the first extra hole. Miller said the Australian’s swing was that of a 15-year-old handicapper and would have made Ben Hogan jump. Parry was so incensed that he made a formal complaint to the US Tour, but Miller remained unrepentant and his ability to make such comments, and then refuse to back down when they cause a stir, is perhaps why he remains the most successful American not to have been offered the Ryder Cup captaincy.
And it was the Ryder Cup that got him into more hot water. During the infamous 1999 game in Brookline. Captain Ben Crenshaw, acting ‘in his mind’ picked an out-of-form Justin Leonard to partner Hal Sutton in the second four balls of the afternoon (they then halved their innings with Olazabal and Jimenez). Miller responded by saying: ‘My opinion is that Justin should go home and watch it on TV.’ Leonard was furious and joined Davis Love and Jim Furyk, who all said, in effect, that Miller didn’t believe in them and wasn’t supporting the home team properly.
Miller told them to take a walk and noted that his job is not to act as a cheerleader, but to offer an honest opinion. He was also outspoken in condemning the behavior of American fans, who abused Colin Montgomerie, his wife and father, and generally behaved like a riot, and then harshly criticized the American team, led by Tom Lehman, for the infamous charge on the 17th green. when Justin Leonard held a wild layup in his singles match again Jose Maria Olazabal.
He told Golf Digest: “If Tom Lehman had done what he did in the Ryder Cup 10 years ago, he would have been out of the Ryder Cup forever, or at least for one Cup. He was off the charts. He was out of control.
Miller was always in control and in his pomp he was as good as anyone who ever swung a golf club.
Johnny Miller in:
His game: ‘I had a stretch there for a few years where I played golf that bordered on the twilight zone. I remember literally getting sick of having to do shot after shot.’
Colin Montgomerie: “Sometimes the boy has no filter between his heart, brain and mouth, but his thoughts are not harmful to the game.”
Retief Goosen: It’s the worst three-putt in golf history,’ (after he missed two from 12 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2001 US Open; he went on to win the playoff).
Peter Oosterhuis (1973 Masters leader after 54 holes): ‘He’ll probably get a good night’s sleep – all of two and a half hours.’
The greatest: ‘When Jack Nickalus plays well he wins, when he plays badly he comes in second. When he plays terribly, he’s third.’
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