Merely by chance, Larry Hinson and John Miller have never been paired in a golf tournament, thus sparing galleries the illusion that they are seeing double. Then again, perhaps it would simplify matters if the two were ordered to play together, always, so that everyone could at least be certain of one thing: that this was Hinson and Miller coming down the fairway—although not necessarily in that order.
The problem is that each looks remarkably like the other, especially when one of them is, say, standing on a tee and you are some 250 yards away. Both are young, Hinson 27, Miller 24. They are about 6'2", as lean as a pair of one-irons and have golden blond hair kept stylishly long, at least by golf's standards. Both respond to gallery applause with animated smiles and waves of the hand. Neither smokes. Both are natural lefthanders, although they play golf right-handed. And both have a flair for bright golf clothes. If one of them dressed like a Frank Beard—black slacks, white shirt, gray cardigan, Amana cap—the identity problem would be solved. But both show up at the course in striped or checkered slacks and richly colored solid shirts. And as for a hat—you must be crazy. Take a poll to determine the tour's top dressers and both Hinson and Miller would be near the top. Although not necessarily in that order.
Larry Hinson and John Miller are quite accustomed to being confused with one another. At the Crosby last month, Cary Middlecoff discussed the similarity while NBC offered a split-screen shot of the two, who were playing just a couple of holes apart. "I can't tell them apart," said Middlecoff. "They're like twins."
"People will walk up to me on the practice putting green and start discussing a possible business deal," says Miller. "I'll listen, get sort of interested and then I'll realize they think they're talking to Larry. It can get embarrassing. One time a guy I've known since I was 12 came up and called me Larry. Unbelievable!"
February 21, 1972
On Hinson's part, he was flying to a tournament shortly after the Masters, which Miller almost won and which gave him close to two hours of exposure on national television. A passenger came down the aisle of the plane, saw Hinson and said: "I want you to know I was really rooting for you out there."
"I just told him I was, too," says Hinson. "Most of the time it's easier to go along with it and pretend I am John."
There is one last thing both young golfers have in common—promise. Hinson is in his fourth full year on the tour, Miller his third, and both have experienced a fair amount of glory. Hinson earned $120,897 in 1970, Miller $91,081 last year. Each has won one tournament and come close in several others. While it is the consensus of most pros that Miller has the more solid swing—"The best on the tour," Jack Nicklaus has said—they speak highly of Hinson's determination and it would surprise no one to see either win any tournament, the major ones included, at any time.
Listen to the two of them talk and you will have no trouble in telling them apart. Hinson is the one with the Southern accent, having been raised in Douglas, Ga., a town of some 10,000. He is a friendly-looking person with sharply chiseled features and a wide mouth. Unlike many touring pros, he is cordial, even interested when strangers approach him during a tournament. He will say grace before dinner, not a short memorized chant, but one obviously designed for the occasion. When his wife Marion and his two young daughters join him on the tour, the little girls amuse themselves in the evening by using their father's enormous golf bag as a horse.
Occasionally a TV commentator will mention Hinson's courage. He is referring, however obliquely, to polio. Larry contracted the disease as a 5-year-old and it left him with a paralyzed left arm. "I couldn't understand why," he says. "I thought, 'it's mine, why can't I move it?' " For a year and a half he tried to use his arm without success. Then one day in school he was chasing a girl in a game of tag when he tripped. As he fell, instinct took control and he moved his paralyzed arm to break the fall. The arm, shriveled and atrophied from disuse, broke, the first of three breaks he was to suffer in the next year and a half. But at least he could move the arm again. As a result of the breaks, plus one missetting, Hinson has lost much of the normal arm rotation between his wrist and elbow. It is typical of him to view this limitation optimistically. "I'm lucky in a way," he says. "I can't turn my arm over, so there's no way I can duck hook the ball."
The polio also cost Hinson the muscle in the area at the base of his left thumb. On cold mornings, when he has an early tee-off time, the thumb tends to curl up, so that to assume a proper grip he must flatten it out against the handle of the club. "I could straighten it out with my other hand," he says, "but people would notice it and I don't want it to seem like I'm looking for sympathy, you know?"
In spite of his withered arm, Hinson played most sports in school. "I was determined not to let the arm keep me from being a normal boy," he says. "It took a while to convince my parents of that, but I never doubted it." At Coffee County High School, Hinson played basketball, high-jumped and ran on the 440-yard relay team. He even tried football in his senior year but never golf until he was 15. Then, in exchange for caddying at the Douglas Golf and Country Club, Larry received lessons from the local pro, T.C. Laughter. Within a year Hinson was shooting in the 70s and entering local tournaments. In 1967, representing East Tennessee State on a golf scholarship, he won the NCAA college-division championship and a year later turned professional.
Hinson graduated from the PGA rookie school in Florida in the spring of 1968 and went out on the tour, starting with the New Orleans Open. He didn't win the tournament then; he did the next year, beating Frank Beard on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff. Hinson earned $20,000 for his first tour victory and finished the year with $54,267. By the end of the next year he more than doubled that amount, winding up eighth on the money list.
Last year was a disappointment. Through May Hinson had earned only $25,000 and his best finish was a tie for 10th at the Byron Nelson Classic. For several hours during the first round of the U.S. Open at Merion, however, he looked as if he might make a joke of that fine old course. After 13 holes he was 5 under par, headed for a 65, but he finished bogey, bogey, bogey, double bogey, bogey for a 71. "I was so humiliated I just sort of slunk off the course," Hinson says.
Shortly after the Open, he was lifting weights to strengthen his left arm—something he has always worked at—when the bar slipped backward. Instead of allowing the bar to crash, Hinson attempted to regain control and in the process ripped some muscles in his shoulder. He tried to stay on the tour, but when he missed the cut at the Westchester Classic—where he had tied for second the year before—he had to take six weeks off. He reappeared at the Robinson Open in September, finished third and then rested for most of the fall. Now the shoulder is fully healed and, optimistic as always, he looks forward to a big year.
That is, assuming he does not pile up again in his airplane. It seems Arnold Palmer is not the tour's only Red Baron. Hinson owns a Beechcraft Bonanza and has already cracked up once trying to learn to land it in a crosswind. He also had a scare when flying with his wife from Johnson City, Tenn. to his home in Douglas last year. The weather turned ugly, the radio failed to work and, well, "Marion was breathing sort of hard by the time we found the airport," says Hinson.
Unlike Hinson, John Miller has played golf nearly all his life. When he was five, his father set up a canvas in the cellar of the Miller home in San Francisco and John would spent hours slamming golf balls into it. He was one of four children. Ronald, his older brother, drowned when he was 16, a tragedy that still affects John deeply. Miller is not as outwardly amiable as Hinson. When he is concentrating, his appearance can be severe, unapproachable, but this is a guise. He is not only genuinely friendly, he is inquisitive and asks as many questions as he is asked. Unlike Hinson, he travels the tour with his family—wife Linda and their infant son.
It was not until he was seven that Miller was allowed on a course. The Millers are Mormon and a fellow member of their church was John Geertsen, then head pro at the San Francisco Golf Club, one of the best courses in the area. John's father arranged for his son to take lessons from Geertsen and he is still the only coach Miller has ever had. "Bill Casper has taught me a lot about the mental approach to the game," Miller says, "but he has never made one suggestion about how I should swing."
It was apparent from the start that Miller was some sort of golfing prodigy. He played most of his early rounds at Harding Park in San Francisco, a spawning ground for future pros. Ken Venturi got his education there, although he was years ahead of Miller. So was Tony Lema. But when Miller was a boy, it was not unusual to have Bob Lunn, George Archer, Dick and John Lotz and Ron Cerrudo all playing there.
Miller used to pick up spending money on the putting green at Harding Park by playing a game called nickel, dime, quarter. Any number could play, the more the better as far as Miller was concerned. Low total for the first three holes picked up 5¢ from the rest. The next three holes were worth 10¢, the last three, 25¢. It was a good training school for pressure putting in later years, sinking a seven-footer for 25¢ ranking somewhere just short of winning the Masters to a 12-year-old.
"Boy, I could really putt then," Miller says. "There was nothing I couldn't make."
"Is it conceivable," he was asked recently, "that you were a better putter at 12 than you are now?"
"Are you kidding?" he replied. "Of course I was. At 12 you haven't got a nerve in your body." Even so, Miller is regarded as one of the game's better putters today.
When Miller was 14, Leon Gregoire, the father of a friend, arranged for him to play at the Olympic Country Club. His family could not afford membership but the club, recognizing the boy's ability, gave him the freedom of the course. It is a practice many leading golf clubs now follow. Miller obviously had the game of a budding professional, but there was the question of whether he would ever be big enough. At 15 he was only 5'2" and 110 pounds, barely heavier than his golf bag. But within the next two years he sprouted 10 inches, thanks to a program of exercise.
In 1966, when Miller was only 19, the U.S. Open was held at Olympic. As a hedge against failing to qualify, Miller signed up as a caddie, which seemed a prudent idea since he was attending Brig-ham Young on a golf scholarship and would have to qualify in the Salt Lake City area against 16 local professionals. He needn't have bothered. If you saw the television coverage of that Open—the one Palmer had wrapped up by seven strokes until he gave it away to Casper—you may remember the blond-haired youth who was paired with Nicklaus in the third round. Miller shot 70-72-74-74—290 to finish, remarkably, in a tie for eighth, low amateur by three strokes.
Miller left Brigham Young in 1968 to turn pro. He went through the PGA school a year after Hinson, and in 1970, his first full year on the tour, he won $52,391. Last year he won his first tournament, the Southern Open, finished tied for fifth in the U.S. Open and was responsible for making the final round of the Masters one of the most exciting in the history of the tournament.
It was only Miller's second Masters and not much was expected of him, particularly after his opening rounds of 72 and 73. Even a third-round 68 left him four shots off the lead, behind Charles Coody and Nicklaus as well. A John Miller does not figure to pick up four strokes on Jack Nicklaus in the fourth round at Augusta.
And yet Miller should have won. He played the front nine in 33, putting him one stroke behind the leaders, then birdied the 11th, 12th and 14th to take a two-stroke lead. Thousands who had come out to watch the duel between Coody and Nicklaus were now solidly behind the golden-haired kid in the striped pants and lime shirt.
It was at the 15th that Miller began to think about winning. "And that's when I started to lose my concentration. Up till then I had pretended it was just a practice round, but I began to think about what I'd say when they put the green jacket on me and how my dad would feel. It brought tears to my eyes."
Miller decided if he could birdie the 15th, giving him a three-stroke lead, no one could catch him, so, showing the same spirit that made Palmer famous, he whipped out a three-wood for his second shot and tried for the green. His shot carried the pond but caught the trap on the right. From there he was unable to get down in two and had to settle for a par 5. On the 16th he gambled again, going directly for the pin on the par-3 hole instead of for the center of the green. The ball kicked into a trap and Miller took a bogey. At 18 he bogeyed again, winding up tied for second with Nicklaus, two strokes behind Coody. "Even so, I'm happy with what I did there," he says now. "People have said to me, 'You must have nightmares about it.' No way. I just look forward to playing there this year. I think I have just the game for Augusta. I hit high, soft shots and love those fast greens."
Early this year Miller hit one shot on national television that was very definitely neither high nor soft. Paired with Nicklaus in the final round of the Crosby, he shanked his second shot on 16, a full, all-out duffer's shank. Miller hit a number of outstanding shots during that tournament, but millions of golf fans who watched that Sunday will remember only one: the shank that probably gave Nicklaus the Crosby in sudden death.
But will they remember exactly who hit it? A young, blond-haired golfer in striped pants was preparing to hit an approach shot at the Andy Williams tournament in San Diego a few weeks later when someone in the gallery shouted: "Make sure you don't shank it."
As always, Larry Hinson didn't bother to explain.