The Johnny Miller you ought to know

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Word back in October of Johnny Miller’s retirement summoned all kinds of obvious memories of his broadcasting perfection. The mélange of odd nomenclature such as “side-boards,” “fall lines,” “Campbell’s chunkys” and his trademark “yowza.” There was his willingness to use the word “choke,” though he very rarely did the last 15 years or so. There were his tears on Father’s Days at U.S. Opens, the reminders of his 1970s heyday when he lit up the desert and his unabashed fandom of “young guns.”

But his leaving brings back more curious and distant memories for me, starting in 1982 when Miller, still a ways away from becoming an analyst for NBC in 1989, had an early go at broadcasting on local TV in Utah. The gig was the Utah Open, played at Willow Creek Country Club. It was utterly a lark for Miller, a Brigham Young University grad who had a home in the area. He still was an active tour player but was on some sort of hiatus. It was a short broadcast, reminiscent of the first Masters broadcasts that featured only a couple of cameras. I met him on the practice green and was flattered when he explained the arm-bar putting method he was fooling around with. After playing in the pro-am (the pro-am team I was on tied his with a score of 20 under), he stepped into the booth and offered his frank assessments of local and regional club pros. Miller was a very rough diamond in tall rough. I recall him interrupting the host announcer a lot, and comparing good rounds to ones he’d shot. The Miller TV persona we saw at NBC existed in raw form, all kinds of potential nobody saw.

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Personal exposure to a player of Miller’s repute makes an impression on a young person, and it got much better a few years later when I went to work for Golf Digest. Over the course of a 20-year period beginning in 1984, I ghosted most of his columns and all of instruction and year-end stories he did for us. I also helped him write his 2004 book entitled I Call the Shots. It was the coolest association ever, and he stands alone as the most interesting person to talk golf with I ever met. Jackie Burke, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus are right there with him, but if you took those three away and left only Miller, I’d still have had a worthwhile career.

• • •

One of my early assignments was to cover a Spalding outing, in which the company was rolling out a two-piece golf ball it promised was light years better than its famous Top-Flite, which travelled for miles but didn’t spin much and felt like hard ceramic when you hit it. The Tour Edition was purported to have a soft feel that would spin nicely. It was ahead of its time in some ways, an early assault on the three-piece wound-construction ball that had dominated pro golf for decades.

To prove the Tour Edition’s bonafides, Spalding officials brought to the outing at Pelham Country Club outside New York City their three best staff players, Greg Norman, Craig Stadler and Miller. After a nice lunch and a verbal roll-out, they moved the proceedings to the course so the players could demonstrate. They spilled big baskets of Tour Editions in front of a crowd of about 50. It was announced that each player would in turn hit 25 balls, aiming at a green 155 yards away. Stadler went first and played “call shot” in impressive fashion, predicting how each ball would behave after hitting the green. All of the shots hit the green and a several stopped within six feet of the flagstick, provoking cheers from the audience.

Johnny Miller
R&A Championships

Miller’s ball-striking was the envy of his generation.

Next up was Norman, dead in the prime of his career. This was 1986, the year of his “Saturday Slam” in which he led each of the four majors after three rounds but won only the British Open, at Turnberry. Norman was much more impressive than Stadler. The Shark hit towering fades, draws and straight shots with astonishing accuracy, the ball spinning wildly to the left, right or straight backward after landing, each one dancing exactly as he predicted. A few shots stopped within three feet of the hole. The onlookers were wild with their applause.

Last to hit was Miller. It took a while for the Spalding guys to find him, as he’d been chatting with someone in the crowd and blithely ignoring what Norman and Stadler were doing. The way he strode past Stadler and Norman, seated in their collapsible chairs, was memorable. He looked at them dismissively, if not downright arrogantly, walking that imperious walk of his, kicking his feet out in advance of each step, his legs straightening before they reached the ground. Miller always speculated that his walk—or strut—may have actually caused him knee problems.

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Miller asked for the distance. The 155 yards had been announced but Johnny wasn’t paying attention because he didn’t really care—and with the 155-yard number known, proceeded to show Stadler, Norman and rest of us what serious ball-striking really was about. He hit low, crewcut-high screamers that made a divine noise you don’t hear in golf balls any more. He hit three low ones like that, each tearing out a deep chunk on the green and skidding to a halt inches from the hole. “I can hit it high with this Tour Edition, too,” he said, and hit a series of high floaters that didn’t spin at all but plopped dead next to the stick. Then he curved shots both ways, hit a couple of thin ones on purpose (they still braked to a halt) and hit some huge, looping, silly shots, ones he might play if he were bending them around a tree. He took almost no divot on any shot, shaving only the tops of the grass with unreal precision. He got sharper as he went along and the crowd, instead of cheering, fell mostly silent, mesmerized as he explained what he was doing.

Two of Miller’s shots hit the flagstick. Another lipped out. After one of the flagstick-rattlers, he turned to Stadler and Norman and said in that super-confident tone we eventually got used to hearing on TV, “How would you guys like to do this for money? Say, $50 a shot?” Their reaction was amazing. Stadler and Norman slunk back in their chairs, laughing nervously, kind of shying away. Years later Miller would tell me how the dominant animal in the jungle holds its head higher than the lesser ones. When it came to hitting irons, Miller was the dominant animal. Neither Norman nor Stadler wanted any part of him.

• • •

Over the years, when I met with Miller annually and approached the doors of his homes in Napa and Pebble Beach in California, or the one outside Park City, Utah, I knew two hours of surprises, wisdom, humor and hot takes awaited me inside. Good as he was on TV, he always was constrained to 3- or 10-second bursts, not enough to truly air things out. In person, Miller is one of the greatest story tellers who ever lived, his excellent memory combined with a varied lifetime in golf provoking Zelig-like stories that were incredible, at least to me. He always filled my notebook and tape recorder with observations, advice, reminiscences and predictions about the game and its players. He was always generous, professional, on time and determined to give me more than I needed.

Johnny typically answered the door wearing jeans, a golf shirt and loafers with no socks. Once inside, his wife, Linda, frequently made tuna sandwiches. He always asked about my family. There is great warmth in his home. All kinds of amazing golf bric-a-brac littered his houses. I’d pick up a driver resting in the corner and he’d say, “That’s the one Arnold Palmer used in the 1975 Ryder Cup.” Or, “That sand wedge you’re holding, that’s the one Billy Casper used when he won the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic.” He’d waggle them while he dispensed hot takes, homespun advice and unusual views on everything.

Johnny Miller
Augusta National

His takes on junior golf come to mind. How do you get a small child hooked in golf? “Take him to a course with a pond and let him hit balls into the water,” he said. When I asked why, he said, “Because little kids love to see things splash and they will beg to come back,” he said. How do you teach them about golf course safety? “Call the kid over, show him the iron clubhead up close, then, without warning, give him a light tap on the forehead. It won’t hurt him, but the small amount of pain will shock them. For the rest of their lives, they will realize clubs can do a lot of damage.”

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Still talking about junior golf, he told me how, at age 9, he’d won a local closest-to-the-hole contest in his hometown of San Francisco. After he was presented with a small trophy, a man with a goatee approached Miller’s father and pleaded to have young Johnny try one of his putters. Miller’s father agreed, and the man, who said he was an engineer for General Electric, piled the Millers into his tiny Citroen automobile and drove them to his home. There, in his garage, sat a slew of bizarre-looking putters in various stages of hand-made production. He handed Johnny a finished prototype, dropped a ball on a patch of carpet and invited him to hit. The noise it made at impact—a loud “ping,” was more than Miller’s protective father could stand. “Thank you very much,” said the elder Miller, “but I think Johnny will be sticking with his Bulls Eye.” The man, crestfallen, told them that his name was Karsten Solheim and that if they ever wanted to try one of the other models he had cooking, to give them him a call. “I’ve often wondered what that finished prototype—it was a Ping 1A—would be worth today had I held on to it,” said Johnny.

If the stories weren’t enough, there were the instances when I watched Miller hit balls, when he wasn’t too far past his prime. One year, for an instruction shoot in Palm Springs, Miller showed up without his clubs. He was with Callaway Golf then, and his contract stated that he use a Great Big Bertha driver. The shop was sold out, so the best we could do was borrow one from a member’s bag. The only member that had the Great Big Bertha was an older woman, and the shaft was like spaghetti. Miller hefted and hard-waggled the club, then proceeded to slice his first shot 60 yards into the side of a mountain. The next one he snap-hooked 40 yards the other way. “OK, I got it now,” he said, and signaled the photographer to start shooting. He pured the next 15 drives, and I mean throw-a-blanket-over-them close.

But back to Miller’s storytelling skills. As everyone who listened to Johnny on TV came to know, he is deeply spiritual with a somewhat mystical bent. We heard many times his stories about how he won the 1987 AT&T after a voice from nowhere told him to putt while looking at the hole, as well as the tale of his final-round 63 at the 1973 U.S Open, which happened when he heard the same voice tell him before the round to open his stance. A believer in destiny who trusted and acted upon existential prompts, a couple of things were out there. For example, he believes that trees “almost” have spirits and in his course design work, feels slight pangs of regret when trees need to be cut down. He is a great admirer of Native American people with a great respect for their spiritual traditions, one reason he quietly has conducted the Native American Johnny Miller Golf Tournament for more than 20 years at Snow Canyon in St. George, Utah.

Bettmann

Miller during his triumphant 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

• • •

Two stories he told me had strange personal consequences for me, enough to convince that Miller is, in fact, touched by something not of this earth. In January 1994, he invited me to his home in Napa, Calif., to let me interview him for an oral history of the 1975 Masters, the one he and Tom Weiskopf lost by a stroke to Jack Nicklaus. I brought along a VHS tape of the back nine to help jog Miller’s memory, and when the tape began playing, there quickly came a scene showing Johnny striding down the fairway with his traditional caddie, a thick-waisted Augusta National veteran of 30 years named Mark Eubanks. Miller grabbed the remote and paused the tape.

“Mark was a great caddie, knew everything about Augusta National,” he said. “He was good company and had the yardages down cold. The thing I remember most about Mark, whenever I got near the lead, he got nervous—very nervous. He would get so nervous he couldn’t speak clearly. All he could do was stammer.

“Mark also sweated profusely when we under pressure, but he perspired only through his hands,” Miller said. “It was amazing. Mark’s face and arms would be bone dry, but his hands literally dripped like a leaky faucet. On the back nine that day he completely soaked our towel with perspiration. It was like he’d submerged it in Rae’s Creek. The closer to the lead I got, the faster his hands dripped. I had to ask him not to touch my grips when he handed me a club, because he was drenching them and making them too slippery to hold.

Mark Eubanks, Johnny Miller
Augusta National

Eubanks was Miller’s man at the Masters.

At the Masters a few months later, I managed to track down several more players and caddies, including Eubanks. I’d forgotten the sweaty-hands anecdote. When I asked him if he would be up for driving with me over to our company’s rental house to watch the tape and shake loose his memories, he agreed—if I paid him. I couldn’t do that, but I could offer all the beer and cigarettes he could consume. He agreed.

The rental house was more like a mansion, huge, richly furnished and in the best part of town. As I unpacked the beer, I noticed Eubanks wearing an expression of someone about to spend the night in a haunted house. It suddenly occurred to me that Eubanks, African-American and from the other side of town, may never had been inside a house like this one in his entire life. As I loaded the same VHS tape I’d been packing around, Eubanks opened a pack of cigarettes and nervously asked me if I would give him a light. I did, but a minute later he asked me to re-light his cigarette. Odd, because I don’t recall cigarettes extinguishing themselves. Two minutes later he asked to have it relit again, and when I looked over Eubanks’ hands were sweating profusely, the steady drip forming a small puddle on the hardwood floor. That Miller story! It was eerie.

Miller liked to tell the story of going up against Seve Ballesteros in a sudden-death playoff at the inaugural Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa in 1981. First prize was $500,000, a huge sum in those days. Miller, knowing that Seve was at the peak of his powers, understood heading to the first tee it would take something special to win. He said he recalled meeting early in the week a mystic and non-golfer named Rene Kurinsky. She had taken Miller aside and said, “You will win this week. I can see it. But you will win only if you do not under any circumstance wish badly for your opponent. When he has a putt to make, do not wish for his ball to stay out of the hole.” The mystic told Miller that the vibration he gives off will only empower the opponent. “All he feels is the raw energy of the vibration. Good or bad, he will feed off it. So don’t think anything.”

Johnny Miller
Chris Condon/PGA Tour

Miller stands with a commemorative painting after he was named the 2014 Ambassador of Golf at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Miller said that on at least five holes during the sudden-death playoff, Ballesteros had several short makeable putts to win. Miller, recalling the advice from Kurinsky, kept his mind blank when Ballesteros putted, refusing to do what we all do—think, Miss it, Noonan. The great Seve missed them all, and Miller won on the ninth extra hole of sudden death.

Some time later, I related Miller’s story to my regular partner in our club’s member-member. We both adopted the mind-blank attitude, and the number of times our opponent’s missing clutch putts down the stretch seemed to increase dramatically. Word of Miller’s tip spread, and within a year or two, half the players in the member-member were turning their backs when their opponents putted. Miller’s quirky tales had power and never seemed to end with his telling.

• • •

I’ll close with a story I rarely tell any more because I tired of watching people rolling their eyes. Shortly after Sept. 11, I visited Miller at his Utah home. After our initial hellos, he asked, “Don’t you live near New York City?” I told him I lived 80 miles from there. After some big-brotherly reminding of how important our families are, he paused for minute with his eyes closed in a meditative way. He opened them and said gently, “If something like happens again, I think you should drive north.” I stammered, “What?” He said, “I see you driving upstate. It will be safer than driving south.” Something about it was not at all ridiculous.

When I got home, the first thing I did was get together some supplies and plot a non-congested route from Connecticut to Utica, N.Y. That’s what hanging around Johnny Miller for 15 years will do to you.

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