We all know from his television commentary on NBC that Johnny Miller can talk the talk, but for a time in the mid-1970s he walked too, probably better than anyone else who has ever stepped foot in a field of football. Golf.
Everyone he raced against, and that included Nicklaus, Watson, Weiskopf and Treviño, knew that if Miller got hot, he was unbeatable, and even on a bad day he was still pretty good. Nicklaus said of him: ‘The player who consistently hits his shorts will get closer to the hole than anyone I’ve ever seen was Johnny Miller at his best. There were parts of his game, particularly the short irons, that were better than mine.’
Meanwhile, Watson, who played with Miller when he shot 61 in the final round to win the Tucson Open in 1974, said, “That was the best round of pure hitting 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 a quick and unlikely rise to prominence, followed by an even quicker fall, if not to mediocrity, then at least to fallible human standards.
When he was 10 years old, 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 rug in the basement where the grieving boy could play golf all day if he wanted to. It paid off to such an 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. On a whim he entered the final standings and entered the field as a player, before finishing eighth.
He went on to win 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 places in America, and the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, where he beat 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 is still the best last round to win a Major, and it could have been even better.
He later said: ‘So I birdie the first four and immediately start gagging. I know exactly what’s going on, too. I hit him eight feet over five and cut him short, right in the heart. On the eight, I hit a big 4-wood there, 30 feet below the hole. I leave my birdie putt three feet away and then I miss that one.
‘I just kept hitting hard: three feet, four feet, nine feet. If Watson had been betting on me, he might have been a 58.’
Late-round or weekend charges were a Miller specialty because in addition to that memorable last day at Oakmont, his 1976 Open triumph came courtesy of a fourth-round 66, and the year before, in one of the Biggest Masters ever, he was unable to catch Jack Nicklaus by one stroke, having played the weekend at 65, 66.
Miller said that serenity comes from knowing that even your worst shot is going to be pretty good, and for a while in his heyday if he ‘missed’ an iron shot more than a meter from the line, he would get angry. His swing was so ribbed and pure that he could hit an 8-iron, say, a 7-, 8-, or 9-iron from a distance, with some slight alterations that were almost imperceptible to onlookers. This was a trick he liked to reserve for those players who were trying to check which club he was using on a par three hole. So he would deliberately hit an 8-iron at 9-iron distance, then watch with delight as the other guy airmailed the green.
During those glory years between 1973 and 1976, Miller had it all: blonde good looks, talent to burn, and an innate curiosity about life, golf and people, which he has continued to display in his television work. But of all the golf games that have shone in our skies, his was the brightest but shortest-lived, and as soon as the magical talent appeared, it was gone.
There are three main reasons. First off, he suffered from yips all his life, despite being as good a putter as anyone when he was on a roll, so to compensate, he simply hit his approach shots even closer to the pin. He freely admits that the reason he has only played twice on the US Champions (Seniors) Tour is that he still struggles with the yips. So bad are they that he, even in his prime, he once painted a dot on the underside of the putter grip and, instead of looking at the clubhead, he just stared at the dot for the entire stroke. .
He confesses that his worst moment 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 sadly, embarrassingly, on the greens, where he three-putted seven times. He said: ‘It was as if he was holding a snake in my hands. I couldn’t make a footer. There is no worse feeling than standing in front of a short putt, knowing you have no chance of making it.’
Second, he says he spent a winter working on his ranch in Utah cutting down trees and when he got back on the course, his swing was gone due to muscle buildup and loss of flexibility. He also believes that switching clubs from MacGregor to Wilson in the 75th immediately set him back two notches and is certainly the reason for some of his best advice, which is still good today, which is: “Once you find a game of sticks, like, stay with them until they fall apart.
Third, and probably most important of all, he is a devoted family man and has always felt that the narrow and obsessive world of high-level sports, with its endless suitcases and hotel rooms, was tedious and unhealthy for a sane man. He grew bored with the traveling lifestyle of Tour golf and always had interests much broader than 72-hole tournaments. He is a committed member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), has six children, and resents being away from them for long periods when they were young.
When he transitioned to television analyst, he achieved immediate notoriety by using one of his favorite words: ‘strangle’. Miller confesses to himself as a true authority, since it is a phenomenon that he has studied with great interest throughout his life, since he believes he is a world-class necklace.
He says: ‘I’ve drowned 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. Choking isn’t like that at all, it’s just stress manifesting mentally and physically.
In 1990 when he made his commentary debut at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. His good friend Peter Jacobsen faced a 225-yard shot over water from a downhill position on the 18th at Pebble Beach. Miller studied Jacobsen’s body language, and everything else, before saying, “This is absolutely the easiest shot to choke I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The comment created an immediate furor: Jacobsen refused to speak to him for five months, only relenting after watching a tape of the incident, and almost before he warmed up his announcer’s chair, Miller was hearing loud cries for him to be fired. Now it’s hard to imagine the fuss: After all, he didn’t say that Jacobsen was a choker, or that he would succumb to the pressure, just that the ingredients were there for it to happen. Over the following weeks and months, an unflappable Miller continued to call it what he saw it and American viewers began to realize that hearing honest opinion was a refreshing change from the bland, harmless nonsense they’re usually served with.
He has never beaten around the bush and the candor he has displayed throughout his life, which he happily carried into the commentary booth, has earned him as many enemies as friends. But to be fair, 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, blunt speaking is the exception rather than the rule.
His closest equivalent in sports commentary is probably John McEnroe, but Miller has an advantage even here because throughout his career his game was not only staggeringly good but his behavior was exemplary. Therefore, when he calls out Tiger Woods, for example, for using audibly (and repeatedly) on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach at the US Open, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy because he has never been heard to swear at a golf course. and yet fewer golfers have been more justified in being swayed by some epithets.
And Miller has remained as brutally outspoken as ever. In March 2004, Craig Parry beat Scott Verplank in a playoff for the Doral Championship in Miami by sinking a 6-iron from 176 yards on the first extra hole. Miller said the Aussie’s swing was that of a 15 handicap and would have made Ben Hogan vomit. Parry was so outraged that he filed an official complaint with the US Tour, but Miller was unrepentant and his ability to make such comments, then refuse to back down when they cause a furore, is probably why he remains the most successful American player who doesn’t. they have been offered the captaincy of the Ryder Cup.
And it was the Ryder Cup that got him into even more hot water. During the infamous 1999 game at Brookline. Captain Ben Crenshaw, acting ‘on a hunch’, chose an out of shape Justin Leonard to partner Hal Sutton in the second fourball of the afternoon (they later split his match with Olazabal and Jimenez in half). Miller responded by saying, “My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on TV.” Leonard was furious and was joined by Davis Love and Jim Furyk, who said, in effect, that Miller didn’t believe in them and that he wasn’t rooting for the home team like he should.
Miller told them to take a walk, noting that his job is not to act as an entertainer but to offer an honest opinion. He was also outspoken in condemning the behavior of the US fans, who abused Colin Montgomerie, his wife and father, and generally behaved like a rabble, and then slammed Team USA when Justin Leonard holed an outrageous putt in his singles match again José María Olazábal.
He told Golf Digest: “If Tom Lehman had done what he did in the Ryder Cup 10 years ago, he would have been banned from the Ryder Cup for life, or at least 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 hit a golf club.
Johnny Miller at:
His own game: ‘I had a stretch there for a few years where I played a little bit of golf that bordered on the twilight zone. I can remember that he was literally upset because he had to kick.’
Colin Montgomerie: ‘Sometimes the guy has no filter between his heart, his brain and his mouth but his opinions are not detrimental to the game.’
Retief Goosen: It’s the worst three-putt in the history of golf’ (after he failed to two down from 12 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2001 US Open; he later won the playoff).
Peter Oosterhuis (1973 Masters leader after 54 holes): “You’ll probably get a good night’s sleep, the two and a half hours.”
The Greatest: ‘When Jack Nickalus plays well he wins, when he plays poorly he comes second. When he is playing terribly, he is third.