He has a sly, subtle grin that suggests life is all an inside joke, and his favorite mannerism is to point a forefinger up into the vicinity of his eyebrow and then aim it forward for a millionth of a second, as if to say, "Oh, hi, gang, it was just another routine 62." These are hardly overwhelming theatrics, but with his colorful clothes on a slender frame that looks as if it was manufactured to model slacks and, shirts, and with his blond, surfer's hair, and especially with what he has been doing lately, Johnny Miller adds up to instant glamour. He has always been big in the clothing ads, but now he is big in the golfing mind, too. Very big. Even magical. For his next trick, Miller will win a tournament by mail.
Last week out in a glorious part of the Old West, on a painted lady of a golf course called Tucson National, Miller strolled along looking his usual low-key, half-sleepy self, which is pure deception, and completed a historic triple. In the annals of the PGA tour, going back to the days when Walter Hagen used to pass the hat and coming right up through Jack Nicklaus' diet program, nobody had ever before won the first three tournaments of the year. Until Miller.
What Miller did out there on a course that was dolled up for TV with a bright green rubberbase latex paint, was add the Tucson Open to the Phoenix Open and the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. One, two, three. Johnny Miller is the real comet of 1974.
The fact is, it was Miller's fourth win in a row, for he had captured the World Cup in Marbella, Spain in his last appearance of 1973. That was in late November. To make his heroics all the more impressive, there, are the following statistics: all 11 of his rounds this year (the fourth round of the Crosby was canceled) have been sub-par, and his stroke average per 18 holes is a nifty 68.3. And his bank account for 1974 shows $90,000, a record for the planet Earth, January division.
January 27, 1974
Winning at Tucson was not that easy. The troublesome thing about a golf tournament is that people simply will not drop dead and let you win it just because you have become the new superceleb of the circuit. Even after a remarkable opening 62, Miller led by only four strokes. There were lurkers about, such as Jerry Heard and Allen Miller.
On both Friday and Saturday it seemed Miller would get rid of these nuisances and glide easily home, that he would not be forced to finish with birdies on the last two holes to nudge, say, Lanny Wadkins, as he had at Phoenix. But each time he stretched his lead to as much as seven shots, he went into a snooze, as if he somehow believed the clubs themselves would do the work. On Friday he bogeyed three of the last four holes to cut his lead to four shots. On Saturday he bogeyed three of the last seven and had his lead reduced to two. And by now he had a very serious guy chasing him, rookie Ben Crenshaw, who is something of a comet himself. Crenshaw had gradually been moving into contention with a 70, then a 69, then a 67.
The whole tournament was in the last threesome Sunday when Miller went out with Crenshaw and his good friend, Jerry Heard, a couple of sharks Johnny described as "very hungry."
"I'm worn out," Miller said Sunday morning. "I'm no superman."
He started out as if he intended to get it over with quickly. He birdied the first three holes. But even that did not lock it up because Crenshaw birdied two of the first five. The two exchanged more birdies and bogeys, and when they both turned in two-under, Miller still had only a two-stroke lead on Crenshaw, who by now was the only player capable of overtaking him.
Before the last 18 Miller had said, "I'm impressed with Ben's personality, but this will be my first round with him. I hope he's not as good as they say."
Crenshaw is, but nobody is as good as Johnny Miller right now. What Miller did was start the back side in the same catch-fire way he frequently does things. He birdied the 10th. Then the 12th. Then the 13th. Then the 15th. He was never in danger of losing. His 68 and 272 brought him in three strokes ahead of Crenshaw.
Through it all, Miller was relaxed and outgoing as he tried to put his low-key personality in a better, clearer perspective for the anxious, waiting, questioning world. He chatted in the locker room with friends around, and he chatted in the dining room with his wife and two small children around, and he chatted through the constant interruptions that befall a star.
"Uh, you're Johnny Miller, right?" said a big-voiced radio man one day in the locker room. "We need you for five or 10 minutes."
Miller looked up. "Well, I'm busy and you're interrupting," he said.
The man left and Miller turned back to a friend.
"I wasn't rude," he said, accurately enough. "He was rude and I was being honest."
A constant theme with Miller is the mind—he often asks more questions than he is asked—and what that mind has instructed him to scribble down on an old envelope.
"I've known how to play golf for a long time," he says. "I started when I was five. I don't practice anymore. Look at these hands. No calluses. What I do is warm up. In between, I read my envelope."
On the envelope is a litany of reminders, all of which help the tall, stylish 26-year-old turn "muscle memory" into winning golf. For instance:
"Accelerate the whole club."
"Get the blade on the ball."
"Picture the swing."
"The setup is everything."
"Take it back slow."
"Speed is in the feel."
When Miller hits a golf ball, he goes through a process "like feeding a computer." As in:
"I know the lie, the wind, the distance and the club. I set up. I get comfortable. I tell myself to take it back slow. To keep my head still. The final thing I do is picture the swing I want to make."
Many notations have been made by Andy Martinez, who has been Miller's caddie for three years. "Put down 'Don't rush it,' " Miller may have said during a round, and Martinez would produce the envelope and record the thought.
Miller is not establishing himself as the alltime authority on shotmaking, a Harry Vardon from Napa valley. "But I think I do know a lot about the swing, and I think I know myself," he says.
On that subject, he observes: "I think I'm as good a player as anybody has been for my age. I don't know how much better I can be. Experience is what improves you. I've only been out here 4½ years."
How much better does he want to be?
Miller thinks about that.
"As good as I can be," he says slowly, "without sacrificing my family for it."
There is also a question that arises because of his low-key manner. How fierce a competitor is he? Is he, deep down, the "killer" that people consider Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf or Lanny Wadkins to be?
"Today," he says, "if we all go out and play as well as we can play, Jack will win. If we all play head to head, Trevino will win. Tom has everything but he tries to take his game beyond the human maximum. Lanny just wants to beat your brains out for three cents."
"I want to keep on winning for a long time. I want to be a great player now, of course, but I want to be a great player 15 years from now. That's why I decided a long time ago not to let myself get too high or too low. I don't even like to laugh at other people's jokes. I expect a lot of myself, by the way, because I've always been a leader. In Boy Scouts, in my church, with friends, whatever. I don't know why."
Miller confesses he is striving to become a California model of Nicklaus.
"Jack doesn't hit it that much better than most of us except in the power zone. But he's a thinker. The best."
And Johnny Miller is fascinated with what is happening to Johnny Miller. He is observing himself as he observes others on the tour.
"Two years ago I would have gone home after I won the Crosby. Now I'm intrigued with winning. After I won Phoenix for two in a row—or three, counting Spain—I caught myself thinking, 'I don't want anybody else to win out here, ever.' Now that's crazy."
Looking into the future, what can he see for himself?
"I think I ought to win the Open a couple more times. I ought to win the Masters. You know, it's funny but there are five guys who are absolutely convinced they're going to win the Masters this year. I'm one of them. It's going to be interesting to see how the four of us who don't win it will react."
Miller tinkers with his clubs as much as he does with his head. His clubs are ancient, not what you would expect from his dashing image. His irons are an old set of Armours, circa 1947, but they have been reshafted, he has taken an inch off the hosel, thinned the top lines, reground the soles, regrooved the faces. Everything that can be done in the way of a golfing face-lift. His woods are almost as old as his irons, and his putter is an original Bullseye, which makes it a true relic.
"My clubs are old, my clothes are new," he laughs. But what is really getting old to most of the players on the tour is Johnny Miller winning golf tournaments.