The Genius Of Johnny
Continued (page 2 of 3)
There is an appealing guilelessness to Miller's self-aggrandizement. It's as if he's as genuinely puzzled by the mystery of his career as anyone. What's also endearing -- and a little sad -- is the way, after a detailed recounting of his accomplishments, he can say, "I really don't think about it a lot."
"My only regret -- a little bit," he says, "was not winning the Masters," where he was second three times. "Only because it would be cool to go back to that Champions Dinner." But having dipped in a toe, Miller is soon waist deep. "I didn't value enough what it was to be a champion," he says. "I didn't buy into the majors as much as I should have. If someone had taught me that it's all right to play Johnny Miller all-out golf at Phoenix or Westchester in a regular event and floor it, but in a major, you've got to play more percentage golf like Nicklaus...I think some of that was because I grew up caring more about Snead's record for career victories than how many majors somebody had won. But when I started winning, Jack had sort of reversed the priority, and I never adjusted."
The Analyst Exposes Turmoil
It is underachievers who are most compelled to relive the past. Such self-examination is the basis for Miller's excellence as an analyst. He has the ability to occupy his subject's mental space and plausibly expose the turmoil within. He labels it, with a nod to his friend and ex-broadcast partner Bryant Gumbel, "Real Golf with Johnny Miller."
But anyone who deigns to read minds is himself exposed. A lot of Miller's commentary is an exercise in projection: avoiding the discomfort of his flaws by pointing them out in others. Miller's preoccupation with the role of pressure affecting performance was a needed breakthrough in how golf is reported. But even when Miller was a player he talked about choking, and how he was more susceptible to it than other champions. Similarly, when Miller says, "This should be an easy putt" of a relatively straight 12-footer faced by a contender on Sunday afternoon, it's a passive-aggressive reaction by someone for whom no 12-foot putt while in contention was ever easy.
Miller is not unaware of his tendencies. In the final round of the Tour Championship, he called a missed eight-footer by Paul Casey "an easy putt," then was quick to add, "except for the pressure." But he still believes in keeping his standards high. "I've played and seen a lot of great golf -- I believe the era of my prime in the '70s was the greatest era of the game. So I'm not easily impressed just because somebody is supposed to be a star. I'm sort of like Simon Cowell: When I say it's a great shot, it must be a great shot. At the same time, I've resolved to take it a little easier."
That doesn't mean that Miller has lost his edge. When Mickelson struggled early in the Ryder Cup in Wales, Miller said, "If he couldn't chip, he'd be selling cars in San Diego." Often it's the members of a player's inner circle who get annoyed. One prominent player says, "I actually like Johnny on TV, but my wife doesn't, so no sense being part of this article." Most veteran players, like Jim Furyk, think of Miller as an asset to the big picture. "Overall, Johnny is good for golf," Furyk says. "He was the first one to come out with a brash style, to criticize players, to use the word 'choke.' The fans like listening to him, and he brings people to the game. But I think he's pushed the envelope on his original style because he knows it's what people want to hear. Now when he's critical, it seems forced at times."
Butch Harmon, who has done television commentary for Sky Sports for the past 15 years, believes Miller is being true to himself. "Johnny rubs some players the wrong way, but he's trying to give the viewer some honest insight," Harmon says.
"When he talks about pressure, I think Johnny knows what the guys are feeling. He's been there, he's won major championships. He understands.
"Let's face it," Harmon adds, "when Tiger was swinging really bad, no golf announcer in the world would even touch it. Johnny had no problem. He had the guts to say, 'This is what I see, this is why he isn't playing well, and this is what I think he should be doing.' It's brutally honest, and you have to respect him for that."
Woods is a sensitive topic for Miller, whose 1974-'75 streak was supplanted by Woods' 2000 season. Woods has often been annoyed by Miller's analysis -- he wouldn't comment for this article -- but Miller insists he bears Tiger "no jealousy."
"I actually think he's underrated, he's so good," Miller says. And since Nov. 27, 2009, Miller has largely displayed sympathy for his fellow prodigy. "I've had this dream, maybe three times, where I'm working with Tiger and trying to teach him what I know about the game," Miller says. "I'd like to help him. And I'm pulling for him to get it turned around. I hope he realizes that road that he was on doesn't bring happiness."
Miller always put family considerations before golf. "I just wasn't willing to not be a good father," he says. "If it was between winning championships or missing out on raising my kids, it wasn't a hard decision. Let's face it, professional golf and family don't really mix very well. If you look at most of the Hall of Fame golfers, look at the family life -- you can't say it was red hot."
Spending more time at home triggered the other problem that is most often cited for the demise of Miller's game. After winning the British Open, he bought his first run-down ranch and spent months clearing land and doing other heavy labor to get it into shape. Miller went from 170 pounds to 190, while retaining a 31-inch waist. "All of a sudden I was built like a tight end," he says. "When I finally began to play again in 1977, it was like I was swinging the wrong end of the club, it felt so light. My swing never returned to the way it had been."
But there is more to the mystery. It might have started at the beginning, when Miller devoted huge blocks of his childhood to golf. Eerily, Miller first built his swing in a manner almost identical to Woods: hitting ball after ball into a tarpaulin set up by his late father, Larry. "Tiger and I are the most similar in background of any of the great golfers," Miller says.
It was three full years of pounding shots into the tarp before Larry took Johnny to play on a golf course. "That repetition got me used to hitting the ball in the middle of the face and recognizing the sound and that lack of vibration of perfect contact," Miller says. "Hitting the ball solid became sort of automatic."
In the meantime, Larry was preparing his son mentally. "My dad always talked about self-esteem, how the psyche is so fragile, and how it gets attacked by the game," Miller says. "Everything with my dad was positive. He always found something good. The most powerful thing a son will ever hear is affirmation from his father."
Miller says he never felt pushed, and he doesn't regret the sacrifices. "I never played other sports after the final bell at school," he says. "I liked the Boy Scouts, but I didn't have time to become an Eagle Scout. My dad always said, 'You have to be willing to do what your friends aren't willing to do.' I was willing. When I was about 8, I had this feeling come over me like, You don't have to worry; you're going to be a champion golfer. And it never wavered. It was a march to whoever I was going to be." He pauses before ruefully adding, "The problems came once I got there."
"Johnny really didn't have a childhood," says John Sullivan, who caddied for Miller throughout the '80s. "By the time I was working for him he was in his 30s, but he always wanted to do teenage things. We'd go three-wheeling, or to the Bob Bondurant driving school, all things that involved risk and speed. He had this need to have those experiences. And he enjoyed doing them more than playing golf."
Miller's best golf also had a downside. As Barner signed him to endorsement contracts with as many as 22 products at once, the attention Miller was drawing became claustrophobic.
"I think '74 and '75 took a pretty big piece out of me," he says. "After all the years Nicklaus had been in Arnold's shadow, everybody had finally fallen in love with Jack. And as I was challenging Jack, a lot of people were like, 'Don't even think about comparing him to Nicklaus.' Like they were angry at me. I started feeling, Why bother if they aren't going to accept me? I couldn't really enjoy what I'd done, and I felt pressure to do more."