Augusta National Archive
First Person

The Wisdom of Johnny

As he prepares to sign off for the last time, Miller's words still resonateJanuary 28, 2019

Johnny Miller is saying his farewells as a TV announcer, and to be sure, he has never been at a loss for words. The voice of golf at NBC for almost 30 years, Miller will make his final call Feb. 2 at Scottsdale, and he’ll be missed. As a longtime contributor to Golf World and Golf Digest, Miller provided candid and provocative commentary, perhaps never more so than in these excerpts. Over the years, he opened up about the toll of tour golf and offered insights into his approach to announcing. Miller has never been afraid to praise himself, but he’s also brutally forthright about shortcomings in himself and others. “Honesty and truth,” he says, “will always prevail.” —Mike O’Malley

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I WON THE BRITISH OPEN by six strokes, won at Phoenix by 14, won at Tucson by nine, and won other tournaments by eight, seven, six and five. I wasn’t winning tournaments by accident. This was going out and saying to the guys, This thing is history early.

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SOME OF THE GUYS almost took it as an affront, like a basketball team that lost by 40 points: Why are you making us look bad?

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MY THEORY IN GOLF was that when you’re on, keep it on, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

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I WASN'T CONSISTENT. I want to point that out. I was not a guy you could bank on every week. But when I was on and playing my best, I might have played as good golf as most anybody. I don’t want to be the one to say it, but some of my golf at the time was pretty unusual. Let’s leave it at that.

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IN MANY WAYS, I'M A SOFTY. I’m pretty street smart, growing up in San Francisco. I’m not a nerd, but I am sort of an easy-going guy. But I’m also sort of a semi-confrontational person. I don’t like getting in arguments with people—I like to peace-make—but I can get in there and mix it up if I need to. I just prefer not to.

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I WAS NEVER a phenomenal putter. I was a very good putter from about 12 feet in, but I was always mediocre from outside 15 feet. My 61s and 62s, if you analyze them, were not rounds where I was chipping in and making 60-footers. It was a very methodical kind of 61. It was like, “That’s what he should have shot.”

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LATER ON my putting short-circuited everything. My most extreme case of choking, in case you missed it, was against Jack Nicklaus in a “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” match in 1997. I’d looked forward to playing the match for a long time because it was at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, and I was playing against my hero. But I happened to have the worst putting day of my life. I three-putted so many times—seven in all—that when the show was edited for TV, they mercifully eliminated five of them. It was worse than embarrassing. From tee to green, I played as well as Jack, but on the greens it was like I was holding a snake in my hands. I couldn’t make a three-footer. There is no worse feeling than standing over a short putt, knowing you’ve got no chance to make it.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.

Miller at Royal Lytham in 1974, one of his five consecutive top-10 finishes in the Open Championship.

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WHEN I WAS IN MY PRIME, I had three distinct swing images. I had Lee Trevino, where I opened my left foot and took it back and leaned into my left foot and hit this low little squeeze/fade. I had Tony Lema, where I took it outside, sort of like Hubert Green with a light grip and dropped it in and hooked the ball high. And I had Johnny Miller, who hit the ball pretty straight. So no matter what pin or what hole it was, one of those three guys had the perfect shot for that hole. I even talked to Trevino before I hit it: C’mon, Lee, this is your shot.

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I HIT THE BALL with almost a jai-alai type swing. I would gather the club toward the ball at impact in a very slow motion. Then with a snap of my legs and an explosion, I would almost gather the ball up and throw it at the target. It produced a shot that just floated up there like a knuckle ball; it came down very dead and very soft.

“Your dreams probably say a lot about why you’re doing things.”

WHAT WENT ON IN MY HEAD while I was playing was this: Would you please hurry up and hit, because I can’t wait to hit this shot. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be fun. I just couldn’t wait to knock the stinkin’ pin down.

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I WAS ALWAYS in a tremendous rush in those days to do my thing. If I went fishing, I had to get there as quick as I could. I had to maximize every minute. There was no feeling that there was plenty of time—just relax and enjoy it. I don’t know if it was good or bad. Today, it would probably give me an ulcer. Now I don’t really worry about things. Today I’m the world’s greatest sleeper, if nothing else.

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I ALWAYS DREAMED positive things. I always wanted to play the last hole either one-armed or left-handed. Or knock it up about a foot from the last hole with about a five-shot lead and just take my 3-wood out and blaze it out-of-bounds over the gallery’s head, then drop a ball back by the hole, tap in, and still win.

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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.

RELATED: The Johnny Miller you ought to know

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BEFORE, I WAS DREAMING about golf all the time, almost every night. My dreams about golf totally ended about 1976. Your dreams probably say a lot about why you’re doing things.

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IF YOU WERE GOING TO TAKE a negative to Johnny Miller, it would be that I didn’t relish having the last shot at the end of the game. That was not my thing. It was Jack Nicklaus’ thing. I’m not so sure that it was even Trevino’s. I think Tom Watson enjoyed it. Nicklaus wanted to be one shot back in the last round. I wanted to be eight shots ahead.

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JACK MADE ME LOOK like a hack in the majors. He had a very calculating, conservative and, for me, too-boring style of play. I’m just not willing to play that kind of golf; I get off on flooring it. For me to stay in traffic for three-fourths of the trip and then in the last quarter hope that people break down—then you step on the pedal just a touch, and that’s what wins you the tournaments—that wasn’t my brand of doing things in life.

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I DIDN’T VALUE ENOUGH what it was to be a champion. I didn’t buy into the majors as much as I should have. … 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.

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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.

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PRESSURE? The U.S. Open has longer lines at the bathroom than any tournament.

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MY ONLY REGRET— a little bit—was not winning the Masters. [Miller was second three times.] Only because it would be cool to go to that Champions Dinner.

Bettmann

A dejected Miller after the end of the 1975 Masters, one of his three runner-up finishes at Augusta.

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I THINK ’74 AND ’75 took a pretty big piece out of me. 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.

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JACK WAS ONE of the reasons I came out of my slump in the early ’80s. He said, “You don’t have to worry about John; he’ll be back.” And I was thinking, Gee, I didn’t know that. I thought I might be history. When he said that, it really helped.

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EVER SINCE I was a little boy, I never really played bad. I never had a downturn. Everything was always according to schedule. I had a foundation that could hold the world’s tallest building. That’s very important.

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MY FATHER INSTILLED IN ME tremendous things—positive thinking, always calling me Champ. He would say, “Hey, Champ, you’re going to make it.” I promise you that there has never been a father that helped his son and has been a better father/instructor to pave the way for a player to get on tour than my father. There is no way there has ever been a father to match him.

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MY DAD ALWAYS TALKED ABOUT self-esteem, how the psyche is so fragile, and how it gets attacked by the game. 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.

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WHEN I WAS a Boy Scout, I learned that lesson of leaving your campsite better than you found it. 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.

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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.

“I had sort of done all the things I wanted to do in the game. I was just content. And when you’re content, you’re basically done.”

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. … The problems came once I got there.

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WE HAVE A SAYING in the [Mormon] church, “No amount of success in anything else can compensate for failure in the home.” In 1976, I was fighting with myself. I had the responsibility of the position I had in the game, plus having children in ’70, ’72, ’74, ’76, ’78 and ’80. I was thinking, I’m not failing in the home, but, obviously, to play at the level that I was expected to play would require tremendous sacrifices in the home and a lot of other areas. I was fighting the fact that I had sort of done all the things I wanted to do in the game. I was just content. And when you’re content, you’re basically done. I was happy. Everything was great. It was like, Well, that’s done. I climbed that mountain. Check out the view and enjoy it. Be a good dad and go fishing. I had lost that passionate love for the game. I really can honestly say that at that point, it became work for me.

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AS A TOUR PLAYER, by far the toughest moment was when I was packing my suitcase to head off to a tournament. My youngest son, Todd, was pulling at my pants leg, pleading, “Daddy, please don’t go! Can you stay so we can go fishing?” He followed me to the car, and to this day I can still see him in my rearview mirror, trotting after the car, reaching out with his hands, crying. The thought of that still makes me cry.

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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.

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I WAS TRYING to be a man for all seasons. 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.

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I THINK most males around their early 30s will look at their career and say, Is this what I want to do the rest of my life? That question kept coming up in my early 30s: This is very exciting, but is this really what I want to do? And am I willing to sacrifice my time and keep leaving my family—all these little kids in diapers? Having children will take the fire out of anybody. And that weakened me in the golfing sense. I was home being a dad, and I was doing things that I wanted to do, but it was very hard for people with a worldly point of view to say, This career is sort of over. It was much harder for them than it was for me. I also knew deep down that financially I was in pretty good shape, and I didn’t really need the aggravation.

GOLF DIGEST RESOURCE CENTER

Fishing with son John in California in 1974.

I WASN'T SMART ENOUGH to know that buying that ranch in Napa and doing all the heavy work like the laborers and gaining 25 pounds would ruin my swing. … All of a sudden, I was built like a tight end. 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. … That cut my career off by two or three years. When I went from 170 to 195 pounds and dropped back to 185, I was never the same. But the work on the ranch was maybe my way of saying, I’m checking out.

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AS FAS AS HITTING IRONS CLOSE to the hole, 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. 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.

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LISTEN TO YOUR SHOTS. In the winters when I was a kid, my dad had me practice in the basement of our house. I’d hit balls for hours into a canvas tarp tacked to the ceiling. Because I couldn’t see the ball flight, I relied on two kinds of feedback: how the shots felt and how they sounded. Thin shots, balls struck on the toe, and shots hit a shade fat have distinctive sounds. You’re always looking for that crisp thwack at impact. Even from the TV booth, I can usually tell immediately if an iron shot is mis-hit.

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TO BECOME A FIRST-RATE player, it’s simple: You must control distance with your irons. When I felt my iron game was at its peak, I’d sometimes ask my caddie for the distance to half a yard. You control distance by hitting the ball solidly and varying the length and speed of your swing. If you do that well, you become more precise, which rubs off on your direction, too. The week I won the 1974 Tucson Open, I hit the hole or the flagstick 10 times.

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I CAN SEE WANTING 10 MORE yards with the driver, but squeezing extra distance out of your irons is the kiss of death. In my prime, my standard distance for the 9-iron was 125 yards. I hit my 6-iron 160 and my 4-iron 185. I didn’t want to be long with my irons, only smooth. Reining in my swing speed was key to distance control and accuracy. If you can resist the tendency to swing more than 75 percent, you’ll have better balance and rhythm. Your mechanics will be better, and you’ll find the sweet spot more often.

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WHINERS MAKE GOOD TV golf analysts. High-strung personalities seem to notice everything—course conditions, bad pairings, crowd noise, lousy breaks, crummy hole locations, you name it. As players, perhaps we observe too much, but on TV, that quality is a definite plus.

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I FEEL MY FIRST responsibility is to the game of golf and to the viewers, and not so much to the tour players. In the past, the first responsibility of an announcer was to keep friendships he had on tour, and being nice so everybody would like him. I’m not doing it because I want to be different or because I want to be looked at as a great announcer. I’m doing it because I love to teach. I want people to leave the telecast saying, That was a great telecast. I learned something . . . and I got to get inside their heads. I can’t wait to tune in next week.

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AS A TV COMMENTATOR, ignoring the fact that athletes choke is disingenuous. Gagging under pressure is an issue with every person who plays the game, and it’s especially critical for professionals who have a lot at stake. The entire history of golf has been shaped by players who choked when it counted or got a handle on it and survived.

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I CHOKED SO MANY TIMES over the years that it’s a joke. To me, it wasn’t the result of a character flaw. It wasn’t that I lacked courage. Choking isn’t like that at all. It’s merely stress manifesting itself mentally and physically.

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I'VE NEVER BEEN unduly harsh, except for the time at the Ryder Cup when I suggested that Justin Leonard should have stayed home—a comment I later apologized for.

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Augusta National

Miller long felt the pull of his family even when he was competing.

I JUST DIDN'T LIKE like the pressure, I guess. I didn’t really love putting my reputation on the line. … 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.

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MY THEORY IN LIFE IS, honesty and truth will always prevail. Some people don’t like to hear the truth, but to me, that’s their problem. This job is bigger than me and my friends. That has not been the easiest thing for me. I could play it right down the middle as an announcer, not walk the edges of the rough like I do. I’m just teetering on falling into water hazards all the time. It would be much easier for me to be Mr. Nice Guy and just sort of do a nice fairy-tale walk through TV land, but I’ve always been one to notice little things, little flaws or little boo-boos.

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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.

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I'VE HAD SOME TIMES when it looked like I was going to die in plane wrecks and everything else, and I felt very good about dying. That might sound dumb, but I felt very ready to die. I didn’t feel like it was bad to die. I just felt like it has been rather nice: Had a good time, not perfect, and I’ve done most things that I’ve wanted to do. If there were such a thing as a happiness meter, I’d match mine against any professional golfer who ever lived.