The Genius Of Johnny
Miller's blunt analysis of today's players comes from a brooding view of a brilliant but flawed career
Tall, blond and square-jawed, Johnny Miller always looked like a California golden boy. But as effortlessly straight as he could hit his irons, he was too straitlaced, straight-talking and -- particularly with a putter in his hands -- internally straitjacketed to truly fit the type.
Now 63, a father of six and a grandfather of 19 in what he calls the third trimester of his life, Miller seems ready for the California Dream. He recently became a part owner of the Silverado resort in the Napa Valley, his home during his comet-like first decade as a pro. It's where he won the old Kaiser International in 1974 and 1975 while winning 12 times in those two seasons. It's where he repaired after completely losing his game in 1977 to consider the existential crisis that child prodigies are prone to around age 30. And it's where he played his last official event, the 1997 Transamerica on the Champions Tour.
The place puts him into a reverie, and as he basks in the sun beside one of the property's landmark oaks, Miller and his still-flaxen hair look -- as he might say to NBC cohorts Dan, Rog, Gary and Rolf -- pretty darn golden.
"A lot of great stuff happened to me in a short time at Silverado," says Miller, who takes pride in being television's most popular golf analyst but would prefer that people know him for the sustained but ultimately too-brief burst of virtuosity that left Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf temporarily overmatched. "It's like closing a circle to come back."
Most golf watchers have either forgotten or never saw how Miller could unleash his whipcord 6-foot-2 frame -- white belt flashing -- into a shot. They know his flat, adenoidal voice, which despite the strong opinions it emits, seems suited to someone known simply as "Johnny." (Miller grew up being called John, but his agent in the early '70s, Ed Barner, encouraged him to use the diminutive to promote his image, and Miller's ambivalence with the adopted name is reflected in his signature, in which the "ny" isn't connected.)
There's nothing diminutive about Miller today. He's imposing, his thick shoulders and torso and outsized arms and wrists conveying the silent strength of one of those wine-country oaks, a reminder that physicality was a big part of Miller's golf gift. Although never an exceedingly long hitter, Miller's ability to exercise amazing clubface control with a left-hand grip showing less than one knuckle -- one of the "weakest" grips ever used by a great player -- was in part the result of a boyhood regimen of chin-ups, push-ups and squeeze grips. Miller can still hit a 7-iron 150 yards using only his left arm, and he earned a reputation among his playing peers as unbeatable in arm-wrestling, as recently as a few years ago snapping down Phil Mickelson left- and right-handed.
Miller also conveys inner strength. His resolve in his beliefs is what has given his 41-year marriage to Linda such stability, his devotion to his Mormon faith (fostered by his late mother, Ida) such depth, and perhaps subliminally, his commentary such authority. As much talking as he does, Miller definitely walks the walk. He is known to stop on highways near his homes in Pebble Beach, Utah and Napa to fill trash bags with litter. Over the years he has refurbished 15 ranches, taking them from disrepair to trophy properties.
"When I was a Boy Scout, I learned that lesson of leaving your campsite better than you found it," he says. "I try to equate that to life, and I wish more people did. Sometimes I wonder how the world would be if there were a million Johnny Millers. I guess some would disagree, but I think it would be a better place."
It's how Miller intends to direct his energies at Silverado, where he joined two partners in purchasing the 36-hole facility 50 miles north of his hometown of San Francisco. Miller will reside at Silverado and actively shape its future, with the intention of bringing back a PGA Tour event and attracting national championships. "I'm sure I'll be like Jones was at Augusta and Jack at Muirfield Village and Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill," Miller says. "One of the common traits of great players is that everything has to be perfectly organized. I cannot stand looking at anything that isn't orderly."
What's ironic is that Miller's career is sort of messy. History really doesn't know what to make of the player who could deliver golf of the highest quality, but only twice at the most important times, and for too short a period to build a commensurate overall record. But so seductive was Miller's best golf that the way it disappeared remains one of the game's great mysteries.
The Miller file would include the following: grooves his swing in the basement of his home from age 5 to 8 under a watchful and supportive father; wins the 1964 USGA Junior championship at 17; ties for eighth in the 1966 U.S. Open as a 19-year-old amateur; shoots 63 in the final round to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont; wins a second major, the 1976 British Open, by closing with a course-record-tying 66 at Birkdale; enters a comprehensive three-year slump; regains some but not all of his game to win six more times in the '80s; achieves the best final career triumph this side of Jones and Nicklaus with an emotional victory at Pebble Beach in 1994. Miller's final tally of 25 victories and two major championships was enough to get into the World Golf Hall of Fame, but not the pantheon that his talent seemed to demand.
Most tantalizing to purists is Miller's apex -- the period from January 1974 through January 1975, when he won 10 tournaments, the last three by margins of eight, 14 and nine strokes. Throughout, he did crazy-good things, like hitting the flag 10 times with iron shots while winning at Tucson. Because it was achieved with precise ball control through the air rather than the hot putting that distinguishes most streaks, Miller's moment gives him a legitimate claim, along with Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods, to the greatest year of golf ever played.
"Johnny was the best I ever saw at hitting pure golf shots," says Lanny Wadkins, his longtime friend and fellow flag hunter. "I was very fortunate to play with a lot of the true greats: Jack and Trevino and Tiger, sure, but also Snead, Hogan and Nelson, who might have been past it, but not so you couldn't see what they could do. But I can't imagine that anyone in history has ever consistently hit the ball as solid and as close to the pin as Johnny did. He could certainly work the ball, but his money shot was right at the flag with no curve, and 3-wood through wedge, the ball would never leave the flag. He had a technique and a sense for returning the clubface to absolutely dead square that was uncanny."
Lee Trevino was paired with Miller for the first two rounds of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. "It was my first Open, and I was running scared," Trevino says. "But Johnny had some swagger, and he was already so good, it was like his forehead was stamped Can't miss."
As for Miller's mid-'70s run, Trevino is only surprised it didn't start sooner or last longer. "Johnny's advantage was damn-near perfect mechanics," he says. "He had that extremely weak grip like Hogan, and he would set it going back and then just release it as hard as he could with total confidence. He didn't have to re-route it or hold onto it or practice like hell, like most of the rest of us. Maybe because he grooved it so young, he was basically on automatic, where hitting the ball hard and straight and solid was actually easy. He got to a very rare place."
Bothered by the loose ends he left behind, Miller often references his peak years to tie them up. "There are two ways at greatness," he begins. "You can look at a career, which is obviously really important: how many tournaments and majors you won. Or you can look at how good a guy played in his prime. And if you look at my career when I was on, Nicklaus even said that's the guy he wasn't sure he could beat. Sometimes I think that when we get up in heaven, God's going to let everyone be 28, and there's going to be this great tournament. I think that would be a pretty cool thing."
It's the kind of statement that makes clear why Wadkins hung the nickname "The Man with the Plastic Arm" on Miller. "Johnny," Wadkins explains with a laugh, "could pat himself on the back from any position."
Miller is still plenty limber. "As far as hitting irons close to the hole," he says, "you'd have to say Byron Nelson, and then you'd have to give me a look. For two or three years, I knew that every round I was going to hit two or three irons to kick-in distance. Sometimes when I just knew it was going to be stiff, I would raise my arm straight up while the ball was still in the air, kind of like a Babe Ruth thing. I got ribbed, but I was enjoying it. Bottom line -- maybe not in a major -- I know that if I played my best and Nicklaus played his best, and Tiger played his best, I definitely could have hung with them."