Instead of premiering at Hollywood and Vine, the pro golf tour set up its cash register in Arizona last week and gave us the Cactus League. For openers, it was Phoenix, and Johnny Miller ran everybody out of the game by playing a pat hand and betting on a 61. Anybody still think he's bluffing?
Miller won the Phoenix Open the same way he always wins, with a smile on his putting stroke, giggling over the last few holes. He sizzled his drives down the creases of the fairways and sighted the flags dead in his irons' cross hairs to shoot rounds of 67-61-68-64—260, 24 under par. He finished 14 strokes ahead of the next man, the widest winning margin in PGA tour history by two strokes.
Miller began the new year exactly as he did the old, when he won the first three tournaments and finished with a record $353,021. Last season he took all but the alpaca sweater off Jack Nicklaus' back when he won eight tournaments and a lease on Fort Knox. But times, styles and backswings fade. One minute you're sporting a wide tie, the next you can't keep your tee shot out of the parking lot. The cynics wanted to know what would happen when the thespian's voice changed. Well, Miller showed that he still has a spectacular act. The only thing different is the date on his winner's check.
Like comptrollers and the Chinese, golf uses a different calendar. It usually opens its new year in celebrity land—Los Angeles or Pebble Beach—where everyone wears sunglasses at night—then doubles back to Arizona. This year, looking for better weather, golf's politburo selected Phoenix for the start of its almost $8 million sweepstakes that stretches from sea to shining sea, as well as to Canada and Hawaii.
The rumor was that the Phoenix Country Club course was toughened up for the occasion, but Fearless Fosdick could not have found the rough, and if he did he would have been able to hit a three-wood out of it. Given a pool table to play on, Miller just kept holing putts in the corner pocket, even though the greens had frostbite.
It was a pity that Nicklaus was not there to see Miller earn another WIN button. Jack was among a thimbleful of players who stayed home. Said Jerry Heard, "Miller is just as good as Nicklaus, perhaps better, and Johnny's improving because he's playing more golf than Jack."
Johnny Miller sets a good example for future Boy Scouts of America. He could give the White Knight two a side and beat him on niceness. He does not smoke, drink or use naughty words, and he eats everything on his plate. During the tournament he did wholesome things like taking 45 church kids to a hockey game, throwing a birthday party for his young daughter and giving a speech to a group of Mormons. His worst fault would seem to be his aversion to practice. "I go out and hit a couple of shots and they're perfect, so I turn around and go back home," he says.
Pro golf is global now, with tournaments played everywhere but on the back roads of Morocco. Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player are global. Miller is, too. He hands out business cards that list his offices in, among other places, Tokyo, London, Sydney, Geneva and Rio de Janeiro. On one side the card is printed in English, on the other it is printed in Japanese. That's global.
In Phoenix, nobody had their suntan or, except for Miller, their putting stroke. Commissioner Deane Beman was present, wearing a gray banker's suit, talking about the exchange rate in Madagascar and reminding his players to smile at the birdies. And the fans queued up for a glimpse of the pro-am celebs. That ambassador of goodwill, Bob Hope, was there to dispense Indian and Marlon Brando jokes. Also present were Evel Knievel, his bombast and his rivercycle. Knievel once boasted he would play the pros golf for $10,000 a hole.
Said Knievel to pro-am partner Tom Weiskopf when the pair met at a party Tuesday night, "Tom [sincere voice], it's going to be tough on me tomorrow. There's going to be hundreds of screaming, hysterical women and children, all running after me and grabbing for my autograph. Tom, I know you're used to playing before big crowds, but you've never seen anything like this. I hope it doesn't affect your game."
Weiskopf looked at Knievel, decided against hitting him with a five-iron and blinked. "I guess you get that way when they name toys after you," he said later.
Last year Weiskopf was bothered by a thumb injury suffered, ironically enough, during the week of the Phoenix Open. Most of the year was a tax loss for him, and he gave Beman apoplexy when he took up hockey putting and being absent without leave from tournaments. Last week he was still struggling to rid his game of flaws and wound up missing the cut. "I'm in a recession," he kidded, then vowed that he would putt out this year.
Knievel showed up on the practice tee Wednesday for the pro-am and took a berth next to long-hitting Jim Dent, who was drilling iron shots on the confined range, since his woods could shatter office windows in downtown Phoenix. Knievel appeared disconcerted and bumped a few chip shots. "I wonder if he still wants to play for $10,000," muttered one pro.
On the first tee, Nancy Heard, Jerry's wife, approached Knievel for an autograph.
"What's your name? Nicklaus?" chided Knievel.
"Any smoke signals on the horizon?" said Hope.
"I'm really nervous," cracked Weiskopf.
And off they went, Knievel's head cover stuck ignominiously in his back pocket, like some driving-range bumpkin. A wizened man ran along with the group, carrying Evel's diamond-encrusted cane, and a few helmeted policemen were on hand for effect. No one was hysterical. Evel's second shot went into the driving range.
"This guy's a phony," laughed Weiskopf. "He has a 12 handicap but says he's really a 16. He wants people to believe he's better than he is."
But by the end of the day Weiskopf had changed his mind. "Evel's all right," he said. "He's just another 15-handicap-per with a slice."
As usual, the chilly weather forced spectators to bundle up as though they were in Minneapolis. Perhaps it was imagination, but it seemed as if you could take off your earmuffs when Miller was playing. It felt warmer when he was on the course. In reality, the weather turned colder after his opening 67, which tied him for the lead Thursday. It was warmer when he shot the 61 the following day, and Saturday and Sunday were calm and clear, although brisk.
Actually it is a bit unfair to term the course a pushover. The 36-hole cut was a respectable 145, three over par. Only a dozen of last year's 43 tournaments had higher par cuts. It was just that Miller was taking the paint off the flagsticks with his iron game. It is getting monotonous. Last month in Japan he won a big tournament by seven strokes, using two different sets of clubs.
At Phoenix he employed an eclectic style, sinking long putts and itsy-bitsy ones, chipping in from the broccoli and rimming out fairway shots. His good putting was aided as much by assiduous preparation as by skill. Before the tournament he studied, tested and charted the grain and break on each of the greens.
Most of all he maintained his rapt concentration. He felt he would do well even if his game lulled. After he shot a 68 on Saturday, he claimed he played poorly. That provoked a primal scream from the other pros. At the time Miller was seven strokes ahead of Mike Hill and at least 10 ahead of the rest of the field.
It was ludicrous. At one point he looked up to see what seemed like thousands of clicking cameras, revolving tape recorders and reporters scribbling in notebooks, and answered a question. Said Johnny Miller softly, "I don't know myself if I'm for real."