All of a sudden Johnny Miller is not the boy next door, the neighborhood kid who cut your grass or shoveled your driveway when your wife was too lazy to do it. That gray, hot and humid Sunday at the U.S. Open at Oakmont last year seemed poor soil in which to plant a legend, but something happened. Johnny Miller got caught in a time warp or an instant star machine. He went in one end of the golf course as just another pretty face and came out the other as a U.S. Open champion and, as events were to prove, an extraordinarily good player. He also became golf's Six Million Dollar Man.
Today Miller is able to spin gold out of straw. He has won five tournaments and nearly $200,000 this year. He is into the stock market and tax shelters and real estate and insurance. He is a television commercial, a registered trademark, a corporation, a big name to drop at a cocktail party. Soon he might begin talking about running for governor or going on the road with a nightclub act. He drives a Porsche, carries a $2,500 watch in his golf bag and is considering buying a California ranch. His wife is beautiful. His children are precious. Celebrities want his autograph. He is 27 years old, has a 30-inch waist, a movie star's profile, a full head of blond hair. And he can putt.
Every so often Johnny Miller pinches his checkbook to see if it is all real and thinks back to that glorious day when he shot a 63 and came from nowhere to win the Open, that day when everything lit together as easily as the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Up to that moment Miller was just another third-round leader at Phoenix, a guy who would shank on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach or bogey two of the last three holes at Augusta or swallow his Adam's apple over the putt that really counted.
The new Miller recalls in detail the day of his grand transmutation at Oakmont. "I was in a real weird mood," he says. "You know, I sort of had a reputation as a choker. My record wasn't too good. And here it was the U.S. Open and all. But I never let it bother me. I just buckled down."
June 9, 1974
His caddie, Andy Martinez, adds, "You looked like a professional killer out there."
"Well, I just stayed cool. Jerry Heard had told me, 'You've got to relax when you get near the lead. Just let it happen.' Before I'd get so excited that I didn't know what I was doing."
One conspicuous change in Miller is that he has outgrown his nickname. He is no longer a "young lion," a sobriquet for those who are caught in the paradox of the young: they have youth on their side but inexperience going against them. "Ben Crenshaw says I'm too old to be a young lion, anyway," says Miller. "That's what they used to say about me, 'Johnny Miller, the young lion.' Now they expect me to win every week. Someday I hope to get to be like Nicklaus. They'll say: 'Gee, when's he going to quit? He's been out here forever.' "
Although he does not have to look at the menu prices anymore, much of the old Miller remains. He still has the shy, wavering voice of a 14-year-old phoning the prettiest girl in his class. When he was a rookie on the tour, he called Arnold Palmer "Mr. Palmer," and even today he is more formal than blithe, better at laughing at jokes than cracking them. His friends continue to treat him with a lack of deference, implying that he is the same old John, just a better golfer. Lanny Wadkins chides him about hiring somebody to spend his money. And Martinez, after Miller hits a poor practice-round shot, is liable to snicker, "Not bad for a U.S. Open champion," or "Way to hit it, superstar." For those suspicious of the snares of success, Miller's head size is unchanged, though, oddly, his feet have grown half a size and his neck is a smidgen thicker.
Away from the motels and rental cars and press tents, Miller likes to fill the days around his home in Napa, Calif., with fishing, hiking, duck hunting or playing tennis. He spends a lot of time with his small son but treats golf as if it were a communicable disease. "I rarely pick up a club when I'm home," he says. "I think I have a pretty good understanding of the golf swing, probably better than most of the other young players, so I don't really gain anything from a great deal of practice. And as for spending money, my life-style hasn't changed that much."
When he is playing in a tournament, he brings along his wife Linda and two young children, Kelly and John. Linda is a firm buffer zone against those overzealous female fans who want to take him out for an evening's putting lesson. "Linda always seems to answer the phone when they call the motel." says Miller.
Although he is not turning down any checks, Miller is a bit amazed and embarrassed by the $10,000 one-day exhibition fees he commands, the celebrities who want him to exorcise a duck hook or the money to be made just by showing up at a department store in Japan. "I'm very happy," he says. "I'm not hungry. Life has been awfully good to me. Sometimes you kind of wonder where it all will end." But there is no mystery about where it began: Oakmont, 1973, when Johnny Miller stood outside his kingdom and unlocked the door with a key from the U.S. Open.