The Genius Of Johnny
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."
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."
PGA Tour victory; Undated; Finishing with son
John in 1974 near Silverado; October 1974.
(Golf Digest Resource Center)
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."
At the same time, Miller went through a club switch. Since his amateur days, Miller had played with a lovingly tended set of MacGregor clubs. The 1- through 7-irons in particular were special, 915T stainless-steel Tommy Armours, made just after World War II. Miller had shortened the hosels, re-ground them, and layered on lead tape for a fine balance. "I had molded that set to me in this very personal way," Miller says. "I'm sure it was the oldest set of clubs anyone has ever won tournaments with. But then at the end of 1974, my manager convinced me that little MacGregor did not have room for the top-three players in the world: Nicklaus, Weiskopf and me. So I went to Wilson for a lot more money and played their woods, irons, putter, ball. They were so different. I never had the same precision or feel again. That was one of the big mistakes of my career, without a doubt."
With less proficiency, less satisfaction, less motivation and a growing family, Miller, never a big ball-beater after his initial immersion, almost stopped practicing completely. "I just hated practice," he says. "It was boring to me. I didn't need a lot of it. But I should have practiced more when I was home, no doubt. That's a regret."
Miller escaped by mastering new challenges. His chief refuge was fishing. "Fishing was an enemy of my golf," he says. "I'm like a pro-level fisherman. I mean, I can fish with anybody. But I also fell in love with the peacefulness."
Miller owned a series of muscle cars as well and loved to take them through the mountains around Napa.
"I was trying to be a man for all seasons," Miller says. "I loved the ranch work, loved my family, loved the church, loved fishing, loved my cars. I was trying to enjoy it all. And you know, the great golfers, they don't have that sort of symphony of things going on."
In search of even more variety, Miller began to tinker with his swing. "Johnny got obsessed with hitting it long," Wadkins says. "He would get paired with Weiskopf and just try to hit it by him, even though Weiskopf could bomb it past anyone when he wanted to. But Johnny lost some of his rhythm, swinging so hard."
THE YIPS (AND PRESSURE)
The part of the game where Miller experimented the most was his weakest point: putting. Although uncanny on the greens as a boy, by his late teens Miller began to feel the onset of the yips. "My putting short-circuited everything," he says. "If I'd had good putting, even with no practice, and not being that dedicated, I probably would have won 50 tournaments."
Miller says the best putting of his pro career began at the Hawaiian Open in 1973, when he started to copy Nicklaus' distinctive open stance, with his head behind the ball. "I literally became a good putter in five minutes," he says. "That worked for me for about three years, but I was getting yippy again while winning the British Open."
According to Andy Martinez, who caddied for Miller throughout his heyday, a 1970s rule change that stopped caddies from crouching behind players when they putted had a profound effect on Miller. "We had done that since 1972, and it became a security blanket for Johnny," Martinez says. "He was a guy who needed a lot of reassurance, and when he lost that instant feedback, he lost some confidence."
Playing became an ordeal. "Stress is not knowing if you can perform," Miller says. "Would the yips kick in? I don't think Jack or Tiger have ever woken up with that fear. They don't understand what Ben Hogan went through. I did."
Martinez says that Miller's attitude became increasingly negative. "Johnny got to where he believed that every break went against him, that he was the world's unluckiest golfer," Martinez says. Miller believes the stress led to an inordinate number of injuries. "I was physically a mess. I had a herniated disk, compartment syndrome -- where the muscles get too big for their sheaths -- a bunch of knee operations, problems with my neck, carpal tunnel, elbow problems, gallbladder attacks from 1972 through 1981, some of them terrible. It wasn't like I grew up with problems, or was out of shape or did unhealthy things. I'm sure it was due to the pressure."
Here Miller takes a breath.
"I hate to say it, because it sounds like a weakness," he starts, "but for me...I just didn't like the pressure, I guess. I didn't really love putting my reputation on the line. I found out I wasn't a guy who wanted the last shot. I didn't like that. My biggest weakness was, I just didn't love competition that much. I worked really hard to get to the top, but when I got there, I realized, Wow, there's a lot of pressure."
And there it is. It's a stunning thing for a professional athlete to admit, much harder than acknowledging a lack of talent or skill, because it treads near issues like manhood and character. Though Miller can confidently compare his best golf against that of Nicklaus or Woods, he knows that in the biggest situations, they would be relishing the challenge, and he would be feeling something else.
"Jack was the ultimate competitor," Miller says. "Floyd, Trevino, Hubert Green, those guys measured themselves by their toughness. And Watson probably had the best attitude of all for pressure, a sheer love of playing and challenge -- crazy good. When I think of the guys I had to play against, I'm glad I won the majors I did.
"You know, players who win a bunch of majors are special creatures. It's not normal. Under heavy pressure, their brains are able to still process information smoothly. But if it's not in your DNA, I don't think you can really learn it."
It's a tribute to his ability that Miller won at a rate that many presumably tougher players can only envy. "The funny thing was that when I had the lead before the final round, I won three-quarters of the time, which was basically the highest percentage of anyone until Tiger," he says. "In '74 and '75 I had a period where I could be leading but sleep like I wasn't even playing a tournament -- no nerves. Golf was sort of fun. But after that it got harder. I'm proud that I made myself confront that problem, and after that I played with a much better attitude. Even though I wasn't as good a player as I had been, I'm very proud of those wins because of what I overcame."
He shakes his head. "I did a lot with a crappy putter and not liking competition," he says, chuckling. "Go figure. I guess talent was my best weapon.
I had a lot of different ways to hit shots when I was nervous. I could find a way to get it around if I was choking. But it wore me out."
For all his wistfulness, Miller seems content. He accepts that his biggest impact on the game will be through his commentary. It's why he draws so deeply from his experience and angst to provide the insight that enlightens us all.
Whether or not it would be a better world with a million Johnny Millers, it seems that the golf world is more interesting with just one. And even as he continues to make his mark, Miller has definitely left it better than he found it.
Photographed at Silverado Country Club on Sept. 1, 2010 by Dom Furore.