We all know, from his television commentaries with America’s NBC network, that Johnny Miller can talk the talk but for a time in the mid 1970s he also walked the walk – probably better than anyone else who ever stepped on a golf course.
Everyone he competed against, and that included Nicklaus, Watson, Weiskopf and Trevino, knew that if Miller blew hot he was unbeatable, and that even on an off day he was still pretty damned good. Nicklaus said of him: ‘The player who consistently hit his short irons closer to the hole than anyone I ever saw was Johnny Miller in his prime. There were parts of his game, in particular the short irons, that were better than mine.’
Watson, meanwhile, who played with Miller as he shot 61 in the final round to win the Tucson Open in 1974, said: ‘That was the best pure-striking round of golf I have ever seen.’ To which Miller replied: ‘For the past 12 months I’ve played better than anybody in the world.’
And so he had, but his was an unlikely and swift rise to prominence, followed by an even quicker fall back to, if not mediocrity, then at least to 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 set up a mat in the basement where the grief-struck lad could hit golf balls all day if he chose. It paid off to such an extent that in 1966, at the age of 20, Johnny went to the US Open at San Francisco with the intention of getting some work as a caddy. On a whim he entered final qualifying and made it into the field as a player, before finishing eighth.
He went on to take 24 US Tour titles, with eight of his victories 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, regarded as one of the toughest of all American venues, and the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, where he held off a 19-year-old debutant called Seve Ballesteros. But it was the US Open that really made his name, as he won it with a final round 63, that remains the best ever last round to win a Major, and which could have been even better.
He later said: ‘So I birdie the first four, and I immediately start gagging. I know exactly what’s going on, too. I hit it to eight feet on five and leave it short, right in the heart. On eight, I hit a great 4-wood in there, 30 feet below the hole. I leave my birdie putt three feet short and then miss that one.
‘I just kept hitting it stiff – three feet, four feet, nine feet. If Watson had been putting for me, it might have been a 58.’
Last round or weekend charges were a Miller specialty because in addition to 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 greatest Masters ever seen, he failed to catch Jack Nicklaus by one stroke, having played the weekend in 65, 66.
Miller said that serenity comes from knowing that even your worst shot is going to be pretty damned good, and for a while in his heyday if he ‘missed’ an iron shot more than three feet off line he would get mad. His swing was so grooved and pure that he could hit an 8-iron, for example, a 7, 8 or 9-iron distance, with a few slight alterations that were almost imperceptible to onlookers. This was a trick he liked to reserve for those players who tried to check out which club he used on a par three hole. So he’d deliberately hit an 8-iron a 9-iron distance, and then watch with pleasure as the other guy airmailed the green.
During those glory years between 1973-6, Miller had everything – blond good looks, talent to burn and an innate curiosity about life, golf and people, which he has continued to show in his TV work. But of all the golfing comets that have blazed across our sky, his was the brightest but shortest lived and as quickly as the magical talent appeared, it disappeared.
There are three main reasons. First, he was a lifelong sufferer of the yips – despite being as hot a putter as anybody when he was on 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 (Seniors) Tour is that he still battles the yips. So bad are they that even in his prime he once painted a dot at the bottom of his putter grip, and instead of watching the clubhead, he stared at the dot throughout the stroke.
He confesses that his worst ever time was in a 1977 match against Jack Nicklaus for the TV series Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. He matched Nicklaus shot-for shot – except woefully, embarrassingly, on the greens, where he three-putted seven times. He said: ‘It was like I was holding a snake in my hands. I couldn’t make a three-footer. There is no worse feeling than standing over a short putt, knowing you’ve got no chance to make it.’
Second, he says that he spent a winter working at his ranch in Utah chopping down trees and when he got back on the course his swing was effectively gone, because of the build-up of muscles and loss of flexibility. He also believes that changing clubs from MacGregor to Wilson in ’75 immediately slipped him back two notches and is no doubt the reason for one of his sagest pieces of advice, still good today, which is: ‘Once you find a set of clubs you like, stay with them until they fall apart.’
Third, and probably most importantly of all, he is a devoted family man and always felt the narrow, obsessive world of top flight sports, with its endless suitcases and hotel rooms, to be both tedious and a little unhealthy for a sane man. He became bored with the travelling lifestyle of Tour golf and always had much broader interests than 72-hole tournaments. He is a committed 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 achieved immediate notoriety by using one of his favourite words – ‘choke’. Miller confesses to being a real authority, as it’s a phenomenon he has studied with great interest all his life, because he believes himself to have been a world-class choker.
He says: ‘I choked so many times myself over the years that it’s a joke. To 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 merely stress manifesting itself mentally and physically.’
In 1990 when 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 lie 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 remark created an immediate furore – Jacobsen refused to talk to him for five months, and only relented after seeing a tape of the incident – and almost before he had warmed his announcer’s chair Miller was hearing loud cries for him to be sacked. It is difficult now to imagine the fuss – he didn’t, after all, say that Jacobsen was a choker, or that he would succumb to the pressure, simply that the ingredients were there for it to happen. Over the next few weeks and months an unbowed Miller continued calling it as he saw it and American TV watchers began to realise that hearing an honest opinion was a refreshing change from the bland, inoffensive pap with which they are usually served.
He has never pulled his punches and the outspokenness he has shown throughout his life, which he happily took into the commentary booth, has earned him as many enemies as friends. But in fairness, he’s not abusive or vindictive in his comments, merely as brutally honest as he has always been and in American society, especially on television, no-bullshit straight-talking is the exception rather than the rule.
His nearest equivalent in sports commentary is probably John McEnroe – but Miller has an edge even here because throughout his career his play was not only astonishingly good but his behaviour was exemplary. Therefore, when he pulls up Tiger Woods, for example, for swearing audibly (and repeatedly) on the 18th tee at Pebble Beach in the US Open, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy because he was never heard to cuss on a golf course himself, and yet fewer golfers have had greater justification for letting fly with a few epithets.
And Miller has carried on being as brutally outspoken as he ever was. In March 2004 Craig Parry beat Scott Verplank in a playoff for the Doral Championship in Miami by holing a 6-iron from 176-yards on the first extra hole. Miller said that the Australian’s swing was that of a 15 handicapper and would have made Ben Hogan puke. Parry was so incensed he made an official complaint to the US Tour but Miller remained unrepentant and his ability to make such remarks, and then refuse to back down when they cause a furore, is probably the reason he remains the most successful American player 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 match at Brookline. Captain Ben Crenshaw, acting ‘on a hunch’ picked an out-of-form Justin Leonard to partner Hal Sutton in the second afternoon fourballs (they subsequently halved their match with Olazabal and Jimenez). Miller responded by saying: ‘My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television.’ Leonard was furious, and was joined by Davis Love and Jim Furyk, who all said, in effect, that Miller didn’t believe in them and wasn’t supporting the home team as he should.
Miller told them to take a hike and pointed out that his job is not to act as cheerleader but offer an honest opinion. He was also outspoken in condemning the behaviour of American fans, who abused Colin Montgomerie, his wife and father, and generally behaved like a rabble, and then severely criticised the US team, led by Tom Lehman, for the infamous charge across the 17th green when Justin Leonard holed an outrageous putt in his singles match again Jose Maria Olazabal.
He told Golf Digest: ‘If Tom Lehman had done what he did at the Ryder Cup 10 years ago, he would have been banned from the Ryder Cup for life, 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 on:
His own game: ‘I had a stretch there for a few years where I played some golf that bordered on the twilight zone. I can remember that I was literally getting upset that I had to putt.’
Colin Montgomerie: ‘Sometimes the guy has no filter between his heart, his brain and his mouth but his opinions aren’t detrimental to the game.’
Retief Goosen: It’s the worst three-putt in the history of golf,’ (after he’d failed to get down in two from 12 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2001 US Open; he subsequently won the playoff).
Peter Oosterhuis (leading the 1973 Masters after 54 holes): ‘He’ll probably have a good night’s sleep – all two-and-a-half hours of it.’
The Greatest: ‘When Jack Nickalus plays well he wins, when he plays badly he comes second. When he’s playing terribly, he’s third.’