Is 5 Ft 4 Short For 19 Year Old Boy A Profile of Johnny Miller

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A Profile of Johnny Miller

We all know, from his NBC television commentary, that Johnny Miller can talk the talk, but for a while in the mid-1970s, he also walked the walk – probably better than anyone else who ever set foot on the golf course.

Everyone he competed against, Nicklaus, Watson, Weiskopf and Trevino, knew that Miller was unbeatable, even on an off day he was still damn good. Nicklaus said of him: ‘The player who consistently hit his short pins closer to the hole than anyone I ever saw was Johnny Miller in his prime. There were parts of his game, especially the short pins, that were better than mine.’

Meanwhile, Watson, who played with Miller as he shot a final-round 61 to win the 1974 Tucson Open, said: ‘That was the best round of golf I’ve ever seen.’ To which Miller replied: ‘For the past 12 months I’ve played better than anyone in the world.’

So he did, but it was an unlikely and rapid rise to prominence, followed by an even faster decline to, if not mediocrity, then at least fallible human standards.

When he was 10, his older brother, with whom he was very close, drowned while swimming in the Pacific and his body was not found for several weeks. To help Johnny cope with the devastating loss, his father installed a mat in the basement where the grieving boy could hit golf balls all day if he wanted to. It paid off to the point that in 1966, at the age of 20, Johnny went to the US Open in San Francisco with the intention of getting a job as a caddy. He entered the final qualifiers on a whim and entered the field as a player, before finishing in eighth place.

He won 24 US Tour titles, including eight in one season in 1974, and one of those wins, the Tucson Open, was by 14 strokes against one of the strongest fields of the year. He also won two Majors, the 1973 US Open at Oakmont, considered one of the toughest of all American tournaments, and the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, where he beat a 19-year-old rookie named Seve Ballesteros. But it was the US Open that really made his name, as he won it with a final round of 63, which remains the best final round to win a Major and could have been better.

He later said: ‘So I birdie the first four, and immediately start cramping. And I know exactly what’s going on. I hit it to eight feet to five and left it short, straight to the heart. On the eighth I hit a great 4-wood inside, 30 feet under the hole. I leave my birdie putt three feet short and then miss it.

‘I was just hitting it stiff – three feet, four feet, nine feet. If Watson had been putting for me, he might have been 58.’

Past rounds or weekend charges were Miller’s specialty as, apart from that memorable final day at Oakmont, his 1976 Open triumph was courtesy of a fourth-round 66, and the year before, in one of the greatest Masters ever seen, he failed to catch Jack Nicklaus by one shot, after playing 65, 66 over the weekend.

Miller said the serenity comes from knowing that even your worst shot is going to be pretty darn good, and for a while in his prime, if he “missed” an iron more than three feet out of line, he would get mad. His swing was so grooved and clean that he could hit an 8-iron, say a 7, 8 or 9-iron, with a few small changes that were almost imperceptible to observers. This was a trick he liked to reserve for those players trying to check which club they were using on a par three hole. So he deliberately hit an 8-iron from 9-iron distance, then watched with delight as the other guy airmailed the green.

During those glory years between 1973-6, Miller had it all – blond good looks, talent to burn and an innate curiosity about life, golf and people, which he continued to display in his TV work. But of all the golf comets that have blazed across our skies, his was the brightest, but the shortest lived, and as soon as the magical talent appeared, it was gone.

There are three main reasons. First, he’s a lifelong sufferer of the yips – despite being as hot a putter as anyone when he’s down the stretch – so to compensate he simply hits his approach shots even closer to the flag. He freely admits that the reason he has only played twice on the US Champions (Seniors) Tour is that he is still battling the yips. They are so bad that even in his prime he once painted a dot on the bottom of his putter, and instead of looking at the clubhead, he stared at the dot throughout the swing.

He admits his worst time was in a 1977 match against Jack Nicklaus for the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf TV series. He tied Nicklaus shot for shot – except woefully, shamefully, on the green, where he three-putted seven times. He said: ‘It was like I was holding a snake in my hands. I couldn’t do three feet. There’s no worse feeling than standing at shortstop, knowing you have no chance.’

Second, he says he spent the winter working on his ranch in Utah cutting down trees and when he returned to the track, his momentum was virtually gone, due to muscle build-up and loss of flexibility. He also believes that changing clubs from MacGregor to Wilson in ’75 helped him. immediately took it back two notches and that is no doubt the reason for one of his wisest pieces of advice, which still holds good today, which is: ‘When you find a set of clubs, you’re like, stick with them until they fall apart.’

Third, and probably most important of all, he is a devoted family man and has always felt that the narrow, obsessive world of high-flying sports, with endless suitcases and hotel rooms, is boring and somewhat unhealthy for a sane man. He was bored with the traveling lifestyle of Tour golf and always had much broader interests than the 72-hole tournament. He is a committed member of the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), has six children, and resented being away from them for long periods when they were young.

When he moved on to become a television analyst, he became instantly famous by using one of his favorite words – ‘choke’. Miller admits that he is a real authority, because it is a phenomenon that he has studied with great interest all his life, because he believes that he was a world choker.

He says: ‘I’ve drowned so many times over the years it’s a joke. For me, it was not the result of a character flaw, I did not lack courage. Suffocation is not like that at all, it’s just stress that manifests itself mentally and physically.’

in 1990 when he made his debut as a commentator at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. His good friend Peter Jacobsen faced a 225-yard shot over the water from the downhill 18th at Pebble Beach. Miller studied Jacobsen’s body language, and all, before saying, ‘This is absolutely the easiest choke shot I’ve ever seen in my life.’

The remark sparked immediate outrage—Jacobsen refused to speak to him for five months, relenting only after seeing a tape of the incident—and almost before he warmed his announcer’s chair, Miller heard loud calls for him to be fired. It’s hard to imagine the fuss now – after all, he didn’t say Jacobsen was a choker, nor that he would succumb to pressure, simply that the ingredients were there for it to happen. Over the next few weeks and months, a defiant Miller continued to call it like he saw it, and American TV viewers began to realize that hearing an honest opinion was a refreshing change from the bland, inoffensive patter they were used to.

He never pulled his punches, and the openness he displayed throughout his life, which he was happy to take into the commentary booth, won him as many enemies as friends. But to be fair, he’s not abusive or vindictive in his comments, just brutally honest as he’s always been, and in American society, especially on television, no-nonsense straight talk is the exception rather than the rule.

His closest equivalent in sports commentary is probably John McEnroe – but Miller has the edge even here because throughout his career his game has not only been astonishingly good, but his behavior has been exemplary. Therefore, when he stops Tiger Woods, for example, for swearing audibly (and repeatedly) on the 18th tee at Pebble Beach at the US Open, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy because he has never heard him swear on the golf course, and yet fewer golfers had greater justification to let fly with a few epithets.

And Miller continued to be as brutally blunt as ever. In March 2004, Craig Parry defeated Scott Verplank in a playoff for the Doral Championship in Miami by hitting a 176-yard 6-iron on the first extra hole. Miller said the Australian’s swing was a 15 handicap and would make Ben Hogan puke. Parry was so incensed that he lodged an official complaint with the US Tour, but Miller remained unrepentant and his ability to make such remarks and then refuse to back down when they provoked anger is probably why he remains the most successful American player not to do so. they were offered the captaincy for the Ryder Cup.

And the Ryder Cup got him into even hotter water. During the infamous 1999 game in Brookline. Captain Ben Crenshaw, acting ‘on a hunch’, selected an out-of-form Justin Leonard to partner Hal Sutton in the second form of the afternoon (they then halved the match with Olazabal and Jimenez). Miller responded by saying: ‘My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on TV.’ Leonard was furious, joined by Davis Love and Jim Furyk, who all said, in effect, that Miller doesn’t believe in them and doesn’t support the home team as much as he should.

Miller told them to take a walk and pointed out that his job was not to act as a cheerleader, but to offer an honest opinion. He also openly condemned the behavior of the American fans, who harassed Colin Montgomerie, his wife and father and generally behaved like a mob, and then heavily criticized the American team, led by Tom Lehman, for the infamous charge over the 17th green when Justin Leonard again made an outrageous shot in his singles match Jose Maria Olazabal.

He told Golf Digest: ‘If Tom Lehman had done what he did in the Ryder Cup 10 years ago, he would have been banned from the Ryder Cup for life, or at least for one Cup. It was off the charts. He was out of control.’

Miller was always in control, and in his pomp he was as good as anyone who ever swung a golf club.

Johnny Miller at:

His own game: ‘I had a stretch there for a few years where I played golf that bordered on the twilight zone. I remember being literally upset that I had to hit.’

Colin Montgomerie: ‘Sometimes a guy doesn’t have a heart, brain and mouth filter, but his opinion isn’t detrimental to the game.’

Retief Goosen: That’s the worst three-pointer in the history of golf,’ (after he failed to putt in two from 12 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2001 US Open; he later won a playoff).

Peter Oosterhuis (leading the 1973 Masters after 54 holes): ‘He’ll probably get a good night’s sleep – all two and a half hours of it.’

Biggest: ‘When Jack Nickalus plays well he wins, when he plays poorly he comes in second. When he plays terribly, he is third.’

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