Once More, With Feeling
His NBC teammates know that whenever Johnny Miller starts talking about the U.S. Open, it could be a three-tissue experience. He tends to get a bit emotional about the tournament that has defined his career as a golfer and an analyst.
"The Open always has been such a big part of my life," Miller says.
The connection reaches back to his father, Larry, telling him while honing his game as a kid in San Francisco that he would win the U.S. Open one day. The dream came true when Miller's final-round 63 at Oakmont in 1973 proved to be the transcendent moment of his Hall of Fame career.
Miller then got a second crack when NBC acquired the rights to the U.S. Open in 1994. His frequent bursts of emotion have punctuated the network's coverage of the event, serving almost as mile markers along the way.
Former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol invited Miller to be part of a meeting when the network made its big sales pitch to the USGA to land the rights. Ebersol recalled Miller breaking down while talking about the Open.
"It was the most unusual presentation ever," Ebersol says. "Tears were coming down his cheeks. I always thought seeing that emotion, that love for the event, really had a huge impact [on the USGA]."
NBC golf producer Tommy Roy got an instant taste of an emotional Miller when the network launched the new deal by airing the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. Roy opened the Saturday telecast with a montage on Open lore that included Miller. Looking at the monitor, he could see both Miller and his partner, Dick Enberg, choking up.
"I'm going, 'Holy Cow, this can't be happening,' " Roy says. "I start yelling to Dick, 'Talk about the weather.' If you look at the video, you'll see Dick starts talking about the weather."
Miller's display at Shinnecock hardly was a one-time thing. His longtime 18th-tower partner, Dan Hicks, says Miller still gets emotional during the opening segment for the final round on Father's Day. "Every time," Hicks says.
Now with Miller set to work one last U.S. Open at Pinehurst for NBC, all eyes will be on him again. Will there be enough tissues in North Carolina to handle his finale?
"I don't know," Miller says. "I never know when I'm going to get that way or not. This tournament is the epitome of what I wanted to do as an announcer. As long as nobody asks me, 'Is this going to tear your heart out because it's your last U.S. Open?' I'm probably going to be fine."
Hicks, though, knows better. "It's almost unfathomable to me to think what his emotions will be like, knowing it's his last time," he says. "It'll be pretty powerful."
It won't be just Miller. The emotions will run deep for the entire NBC golf team covering its 20th and, for now, last U.S. Open. In 2015, Fox Sports begins a 12-year run airing the tournament and other USGA events. When the deal was announced last summer, there was initial shock and anger within NBC over a USGA release saying it was looking forward to new "innovative ideas" in televising golf from Fox. It seemed like a shabby way to treat a longtime partner in NBC, which received high praise for the Roy-led productions of the U.S. Open.
Photo: Simon Bruty /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images.
Months have passed though, and the bad feelings seem to have been replaced by a resignation about the realities of the business. "Money talks a little bit," says Miller of Fox's reported bid of $93 million per year for the package; NBC's was a little more than $80 million. "It is what it is. I can understand."
Indeed, NBC insists it will try to take a business-as-usual approach at Pinehurst. The broadcast team will go in with the idea that it will be doing the next 10 U.S. Opens.
"When this all happened, Tommy called me and said, 'How do you want us to cover the last U.S. Open?' " says NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus. "I said, 'Tommy, I want you to do the best job you can do and be proud of whatever you put on the air.' He said, 'Thank you for that.' "
It also will be the final U.S. Open for ESPN, which has been handling early round coverage of the tournament since 1982. That means one last call for Chris Berman, who will be working his 29th Open for the network. Berman's sign-off will be welcomed by those viewers who contend his bombastic style is an ill fit for golf.
Yet it is NBC that is most closely tied to the U.S. Open ever since Corey Pavin nipped Greg Norman in 1995. After it wraps up at Pinehurst, the network, along with ESPN, will have aired more than 600 hours of U.S. Open action during its 20-year run. Landing the tournament was a game-changer for NBC, ultimately shaping and elevating its coverage of golf.
"The U.S. Open became one way every year for Tommy and the crew to show the world they were the best," Ebersol says. "They started getting Emmy nominations when nobody was getting nominations for golf. It was because of their work in the Open."
NBC wasn't a major player in televised golf when Ebersol took over NBC Sports in 1989, trailing ABC and CBS. However, he scored quickly in hiring Miller as lead analyst and then was on the ground floor with the Ryder Cup, which took off to new heights after NBC aired "The War by the Shore" in 1991. The success convinced Ebersol to make a run for the U.S. Open, which had been televised by ABC since 1966.
NBC eventually won with a bid of $13 million per year. However, Ebersol insists it went beyond money. The network had to prove to the USGA that it was worthy of airing its events.
"During all the time I worked at NBC, this was the only time we had to audition," Ebersol says.
While Miller made a profound impression on the USGA, Ebersol contends he also had another powerful weapon.
"If Johnny is the face of the U.S. Open for NBC, Tommy Roy is its heart and soul," Ebersol says.
The son of a golf pro, Roy is known for a devout attention to detail. Roy credits longtime USGA fixture Sandy Tatum for helping to shape his philosophy in televising golf. Tatum told him that less talk is better, especially down the stretch, and that "tap-ins aren't important. Tee shots are."
Miller says he never has been with anyone who constantly strives for perfection like Roy. The quest is felt by those who work for him.
"He's such a perfectionist. We know when he thinks we haven't done our best work," says on-course reporter Mark Rolfing. "Yet he's also the first guy to praise and stand by us. He cares so much that you really don't want to let him down."
Roy is the anchor for a tight-knit NBC golf team that also includes Roger Maltbie, Gary Koch, Peter Jacobsen, Jimmy Roberts and co-producer Tom Randolph, among others. The bond goes beyond the telecasts. Every summer, many members of the group gather for an annual golf outing at Sand Hills in Nebraska.
Rolfing says chemistry is so important to Roy that he seeks the input of the golf team whenever a new member is brought on board.
"He really engages everyone in the discussion," Rolfing says. "It's not a matter of, 'We're going to do this.' He'll call everyone and say, 'Here's what we're thinking.' That's why new people always fit in so well with us."
Chemistry is vitally important because of the multiple analysts and announcers involved in airing golf.
"I can sense when Roger is going to talk, and I don't see him," Hicks says. "I can sense the same thing with Gary Koch. I don't know when he's going to talk per se by looking at him, but I can kind of sense it. We know each other so well."
Roy set the tone immediately for his first U.S. Open. Hicks recalled that Roy, knowing the magnitude of the event, cautioned everyone to be careful about what they said. "He half-jokingly said, 'You don't want to be the person who costs us the contract with the USGA,' " Hicks says.
Miller, though, never operated with a filter. Just minutes into the first telecast, he referred to the rough at Shinnecock as "dingle-dangles."
"I remember going, 'Oh, my God, that's not going to go over that well,' " Hicks says. "We still joke around today about how Johnny called the rough 'dingle-dangles' literally minutes into the telecast of our first U.S. Open and how we didn't lose the contract."
Instead, Miller, with his unique style, became an even bigger star with the U.S. Open as his showcase. Rolfing calls him "a lightning rod" for NBC's coverage of the tournament.
"He actually elevated my game, and I think other people's games, because we all sense how much Johnny loves the Open and how important it is to him," Hicks says.
Perhaps Miller's most memorable moment came in 2000 at Pebble Beach. Barely an hour into the telecast during the first round, Miller told Hicks that Tiger Woods would win by a big margin and shoot a record score.
"I'm in the truck thinking, 'What in the world is he saying?' " Roy says. Sure enough, Woods won by 15 shots while posting a then-record 12-under total. "I had looked in Tiger's eyes on Wednesday and knowing how well he was playing that year, I could just see that thing coming," Miller says.
Other memories flow as NBC approaches its last Open. Rolfing recalls spending time on the driving range with Rocco Mediate just prior to his Monday playoff with Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
"He gave me 'Observing Rocco 101' lessons," Rolfing says.
Mediate told Rolfing if he was walking in a circle on a tee box, it meant he was nervous. On the sixth hole Rolfing noticed him start to do a 360 while waiting to hit his drive, and Rolfing told the story to viewers.
Hicks recalls the strange turn of events that took place during the final round of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock. After walking the course as part of his normal routine, Miller rushed up to the booth, breathlessly saying, "You're not going to believe what's happening at the seventh green. It's unbelievable."
The baked green was virtually unplayable. Among the people in the booth hearing Miller's account was USGA executive director David Fay; NBC was using him for rules analysis during the telecast. Eventually, the USGA had to take the extreme and embarrassing measure of watering the green during the round.
"Literally, seconds after Johnny is saying that, Fay's radio starts crackling and they're talking about what's going on over at the seventh green," Hicks says. "Fay had this ashen-looking expression on his face. That was a crazy day because we had to deal with it on the air. We had a relationship with the USGA, but we also were journalists and we had a job to do."
However, the one Open that stands above the rest for NBC was Payne Stewart's victory at Pinehurst in '99. The drama of Stewart's winning putt on 18 left an indelible image for the entire crew, especially in light of his tragic death a few months later.
Hicks was greenside, waiting to do the interview with the champion.
"What in the world do you ask a guy who just won the U.S. Open like that?" Hicks says. "So I formulated some kind of question, and I remember the only thing out of his mouth was a big whoop and holler, kind of typical Payne. We somehow got through the rest of the interview, but that will always stand out as one of my favorites, and it even took on more importance after what happened later in the year, obviously."
With NBC returning to Pinehurst, Miller has one request for his final Open: He wants it to be memorable. With Woods not playing, he hopes the other big stars step up.
"My only wish for the championship is that we get a great leader board and a great champion," Miller says. "I'd love to get somebody who really makes a difference. Maybe it's Phil Mickelson finally getting his Open. Nothing against the Matt Everys, but I hope we get some guns going down the stretch."
Ebersol will be watching. When he was running NBC Sports, the final round of the Open was one of his favorite days of the year. He made a tradition of walking all 18 holes with the last pairing.
Ebersol is saddened that this will be NBC's last Open. He calls the USGA's decision to go with Fox a mistake, considering the learning curve required to air a U.S. Open.
"I don't think Fox is going to do a bad job," Ebersol says. "But they have to live up to a high standard."
For his part, Roy says he is not going to dwell on the fact that this will be his last U.S. Open for a while. In fact, he has plenty on his plate since NBC will remain at Pinehurst to do the U.S. Women's Open the following week. He insists the story "is about the event, not NBC."
Also, it isn't as if NBC is getting out of the golf business. The network still has a healthy menu, highlighted by the Ryder Cup and Players Championship.
Yet the entire crew knows the reality of the situation. The U.S. Open has been NBC's jewel and now the long run is coming to an end. It goes beyond Miller. The air will be thick with emotion in the production compound.
"It's going to be tough," Hicks says. "I can't imagine how we'll feel when the last putt drops. I guarantee some tears will be flowing."