One of the lucky things about our job as editors at Golf Digest is that we get to see genius up close. As we bid farewell this winter to the retiring Johnny Miller, the greatest golf analyst in television history, I’d like to share a few stories about his real genius.
When I first came to Golf Digest in 1977 as an intern, I was assigned to help our editor, Nick Seitz, research a book that would be called Superstars of Golf. Each chapter profiled a different player.
I talked to their coaches, caddies and parents for added color. One day I had a long interview with the late John Geertsen, then the teaching pro at San Francisco Golf Club, who worked with Miller for decades. Johnny’s father started him hitting balls off a mat in their garage at age 5, and Geertsen took over a couple of years later, coaching Johnny 15 minutes to an hour three or four times a week. I remember the old pro telling me he always kept a ball in his pocket, and at the end of every lesson, for the final shot, he’d throw it on the ground and say, “John, this is for the U.S. Open. You have to hit that 75-yard sign out there.” The kid would bear down, get dead serious, as Geertsen recalled, “and it’s amazing how close he’d come to the sign every time.”
Another story Geertsen told me that has resonated all these years later occurred in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic when Johnny was 19 and a sophomore at Brigham Young. He planned to caddie in the tournament until he qualified for it. On the last day, in contention, Johnny overshot the par-3 15th green and was in the thick USGA rough. As Geertsen told it, from my notes: “His ball was two feet in front of a gallery rope, and the marshals laid down the rope so he could play the shot. But on his backswing, somebody accidentally pulled the rope, and it came up and caught Johnny’s club. He hit the ball only six inches. He just walked away from the ball calmly, looked at the shot again—and splashed the ball out of the rough and into the hole for a par! That clinched low amateur for him.”
“The crowd, instead of cheering, fell mostly silent, mesmerized.
Hitting flagsticks became his thing. Once at a Golf Digest outing at Spanish Bay, Miller gave an exhibition with stupefying accuracy. At one point, he stopped and said to the crowd: “I told my caddie, ‘Don’t tell me the yardage is 162 or 163. When I’m holding my 7-iron, I want to know if it’s 162 and a half, because I can hit it 162 and a half.’ ”
Then later: “I was the best putter in the world at age 10. Nobody would putt me.”
But my favorite story was told recently by Senior Writer Guy Yocom, who ghost-wrote Miller’s aptly named book, I Call the Shots. (Yocom writes the splendid My Shot series, which this month takes on Bernhard Langer) Here’s a memory from Guy:
“One of my early assignments was to cover a Spalding outing in which they were rolling out a two-piece golf- ball successor to the famous Top-Flite, which traveled for miles but didn’t spin much and felt like hard ceramic at impact. The Tour Edition was purported to feel soft and spin nicely.
“To prove the new ball’s bonafides, Spalding held an outing at Pelham Country Club outside New York City and invited about 50 media to observe its three best staff players: Greg Norman, Craig Stadler and Miller. It was announced that each player would in turn hit 25 balls, aiming at a green 155 yards away. Stadler went first and played ‘call shot’ in impressive fashion, predicting how each ball would curve and how it would behave after hitting the green. All of the shots hit the green and several stopped within six feet of the flagstick. Cheers followed.
“Next up was Norman, who was in the prime of his career and much more impressive than Stadler. The Shark hit towering fades, draws and straight balls with astonishing accuracy, causing the ball to spin to the left, right or straight backward after landing, each one dancing exactly as he predicted. A few shots stopped within three feet of the hole. The onlookers were wild with their applause.
“Last to hit was Johnny. He’d been chatting with someone in the crowd and blithely ignoring what Norman and Stadler were doing. The way he strode past Stadler and Norman, seated in their collapsible chairs, was memorable. He looked at them dismissively, if not downright arrogantly, walking that imperious walk of his, kicking his feet out with each step, his legs straightening before they reached the ground.
“Miller asked for the distance—then he proceeded to show Stadler, Norman and the rest of us what serious ball-striking really was about. He hit low, crewcut-high screamers that made a divine noise you don’t hear in golf balls anymore. He hit three low ones like that, each tearing out a deep chunk on the green, skidding to a halt inches from the hole. ‘I can hit it high with this Tour Edition, too,’ he said, and hit a series of high floaters that didn’t spin at all but plopped dead next to the stick. Then he curved shots both ways, hit a couple of thin ones on purpose—they still braked to a halt—and hit some huge, looping, silly shots, as if he were bending them around a tree. He took almost no divot on any shot, shaving only the top of the grass. The crowd, instead of cheering, fell mostly silent, mesmerized as Johnny explained what he was doing.
“Two of Miller’s shots hit the flagstick. Another lipped out. After one of the flagstick-rattlers, he turned to Stadler and Norman and said in that super-confident tone we eventually got used to hearing on TV, ‘How would you guys like to do this for money?’ Their reaction was extraordinary. Stadler and Norman slunk back in their chairs. Years later, Miller would tell me how the dominant animal in the jungle holds its head higher than the lesser ones.”
Whether hitting flagsticks or announcing golf, Johnny Miller will retire with the title as golf’s dominant animal.