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By BILL HUFFMAN
Johnny Miller captured two Phoenix Opens in record fashion during the prime of his career, including a then record-setting 14-shot victory over Jerry Heard at Phoenix Country Club in 1975.
“I was coming off the biggest year of my career (1974, when he won eight times), and yet that Phoenix Open in ’75 was probably the best I ever played on Tour,’’ he said of his effort that produced rounds of 67-61-68-64 for a 24-under-par 260 total.
“I was at the bullet-proof stage in my career, and I remember the greens at Phoenix Country Club were grainy and not in very good shape, yet I kept holing putt after putt. And it was cold, really cold, but that’s when I always seemed to post my lowest numbers. . . .
“So I won by 14 (shots) with a ball in the water on my last hole, and shortly after told a bunch of reporters that I was going to Tucson the next week, and that I was playing so well I’d win there, too. The jaws dropped, but that was just typical Johnny Miller. I’d say what most people tend to keep to themselves. I’ve always been forthright.’’
For the record, Miller backed it up big-time. He smoked John Mahaffey at the Dean Martin-Tucson Open by nine shots, winning with an amazing aggregate of 25-under-par 263. That back-to-back effort – 49-under in two consecutive weeks – remains a PGA Tour record.
Not surprisingly, Miller’s 14-shot margin of victory at Phoenix also remains a tournament standard, the third-largest margin in Tour history. And while it’s a source of pride, the first 61 he shot at Phoenix Country Club in 1970 in just his second year on Tour might have been a bigger deal, he said.
“In 1970, with the equipment we used back then, a 61, well, that was a fairly historical round of golf,’’ Miller recalled. “It certainly got a lot of press at the time, and people started asking, ‘Who is this young player?’ As a pro, that 61 really put me on the map.’’
In a sense, Miller time on the PGA Tour was meteoric. His star took off in the early 1970s and was all but fizzled out by the end of the decade. He won 25 times in 22 years, but 15 of those victories came from 1974-76.
Along the way, Miller posted a major championship-best 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, and blew past Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros to claim the ’76 British Open by six shots at Royal Birkdale. He also posted three runner-up finishes in the Masters.
“Shortly after that I did a David Duval,’’ said Miller when asked how it all ended. “I guess the physical part did me in, as I gained 20 pounds, didn’t know about stretching or staying fit, and I just couldn’t drive the ball with any accuracy like I once did. . . .
“For years, I was like Fred Couples, in that I dropped the club in the slot beautifully. Suddenly, I couldn’t get it in the slot.’’ So, at age 41, Miller hung up the spikes even though he decided to play in one PGA Tour event every year. Unbelievably, one of those cameos led to his last victory, as he captured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for a third time in 1994 at the age of 46.
“Oh, yeah, I’m pretty proud of that one,’’ he said of the final visit to the winner’s circle. “And I’m pretty proud of that fact that, as a member of the Hall of Fame, only Byron Nelson retired earlier than I did (age 34).’’
Miller, a devout Mormon who grew up in “a tough neighborhood’’ of San Francisco, said he quit playing to spend more time with his family. “People don’t realize it, but I had a very short career,’’ he said. “I played 300 tournaments, which is nothing. By comparison, Tom Kite has played in over 1,000 tournaments.
“So when it came time to choose between the senior tour and my spending more time with my family and friends, it was an easy choice based on a saying we had when I was growing up: ‘No amount of success can compensate for failure in the home.’
“I’m so lucky the way it’s all worked out. I have a wonderful wife, six great kids, and 15 really good grandkids. I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted, and I truly feel blessed.’’
In 1990, Miller turned to broadcasting, becoming the Howard Cosell of golf. But not everybody liked Johnny’s tell-it-like-it-is style of delivery, particularly the players he critiqued.
“I never agree with anything Johnny writes or says,’’ Chris DiMarco said while blasting Miller at the Ryder Cup last summer.
Added Phil Mickelson: “I respect (Miller) because he’s been there. But sometimes he goes over the line.’’ Dan Hicks, Miller’s cohort at NBC for the past 12 years, told USA Today that Miller’s magic is his willingness to take the players’ heat. “Johnny says things that make everybody go, ‘Whoa!’ Then we all laugh about it during the commercial. Johnny’s willing to take the double bogeys to produce eagles and birdies.’’
Miller sees it in much simpler terms: “The way I announce is the way that I played. I go for the flag.’’ Occasionally, however, Miller’s verbal shots have come up on the short side of the green. Either that or they misinterpret his intent. One of those misunderstandings came in his very first tournament as a broadcaster, the 1990 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
“(Eventual champ) Peter Jacobsen, one of my best friends, had a really tough shot – a downhill lie, over water, with a 3-iron he had to hit high, so it was impossible – and I happened to mention that it was the type of shot that might make him look like he choked,’’ Miller recalled. “It was the first time any one on television had used the word ‘choke,’ and everybody went, ‘What?’
“Well, it got back to Peter, and he wouldn’t speak to me for the next six months. But he finally watched the tape and understood that I didn’t say he choked. That’s usually the way it happens, because players don’t watch TV but they get their information from others. And usually it’s a wife or a friend who tells them, ‘Johnny said this, or Johnny said that,’ and oftentimes it gets misinterpreted.’’
Still, there have been some well-chronicled hiccups, like when Miller said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw should have left Justin Leonard “at home’’ prior to Leonard holing the clinching putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup.
Another Miller on-air snafu came when he said Craig Parry’s swing would make Ben Hogan “puke’’ shortly before Parry holed out from the fairway to win the 2004 Ford Championship. Asked if he regrets being perhaps the one and only broadcaster in golf who constantly refers to the choke factor, the man who has been called “the Simon Cowell of golf’’ laughed. “Not at all,’’ Miller said. “To me, the beauty of golf is it’s designed to have the biggest choke factor of any game ever designed in the world. In fact, the most compelling part is how you handle your choke factor.
“Really, (the choke factor) is the ultimate secret to a player’s success. For some, it’s just about winning the tournament, whereas for others like Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, it might be about winning two or three majors in a row.
“But every player has a choke factor, it’s just to what degree.’’ According to Miller, “I did my thesis on the choke factor.’’ And, yes, a lot of it comes from his own personal experiences as a player. “I was always hard on my own game,’’ he recalled. “But just like I would tell you how bad I was, I’d always tell you how good I was, too. So I hope that people when they listen to me (on air) know I’m sincere.’’
As for choking, Miller uses this example from his own career. “In ’74, back when I’d have a two-shot lead going into Sunday’s final round, there would be no pressure. None,’’ he explained. “I’d go to the first tee with the attitude, ‘I’m going to kick their butts,’ and I’d do it no matter if it was Nicklaus, Trevino or whomever, because I knew I was going to shoot the lowest score that day. “By ’77 or ’78, I saw every OB (out of bounds) stake there was. It had all changed, and I finally understood both sides of the choke factor.’’
Despite the heat he still takes from many of the top players, Miller continues to do it his way. And while he’s been called “overly critical,’’ “harsh’’ and “over-reactive,’’ along with “honest,’’ Miller views his reputation as his calling card rather than a distraction.
“My job is to keep (viewers) from taking an afternoon nap,’’ he said. “And in that regard, the hardest part of my job is not saying something that’s obvious. So I zig and zag from left to right in an attempt to make it interesting, because it’s all about entertaining people and trying to grow the game.’’ Even though Miller has had a lot of success as a golf course architect, having designed or co-designed over 30 projects, being an outspoken broadcaster remains his chief livelihood. And, no, he has no desire to play age-group golf.
“The reason I didn’t play the Champions Tour was for two reasons: I hated the long weeks of pro-ams and practicing and being away from my family, and I had so many injuries during my career – pick a spot, any spot on my body! — I wasn’t able to play without pain,’’ he said. “Plus, I was getting better and better as an announcer – I had numerous Emmy and other broadcasting award nominations and honors – and I just liked what I was doing.
“Seriously, I felt bad I didn’t do anything to help the Champions Tour. So in a way, my (broadcasting career) is my way of giving something back to the game.’’
Today, Miller spends his time globe-trotting while maintaining his family’s three homes — two in California (Napa and Pacific Grove) and one in Utah (Park City).
“All I can say is: That’s a wild place!’’ he said of the TPC Scottsdale during FBR Open week. “It’s like NASCAR, the biggest social event of the year. “And you’ve got that 16th hole, where there’s 9 billion people stuffed in there on that little par-3.’’