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A GAME OF JACK OR BETTER

Feb. 03, 1975
Feb. 03, 1975

Table of Contents
Feb. 3, 1975

Sad End
Shadow Of Knight
Jack Or Better
Eden
Freezing
  • Every season at this time, all St. Paul, Minn, spills outdoors to frolic in the frigid weather—they call it a c-c-c-carnival—stirring up a warm conviviality that not only eases the long wait for springtime, but serves to prove another cold adage: that for those who get out and thrash around, winter misery loves company

Toni Sailer
College Basketball
Tennis
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A GAME OF JACK OR BETTER

Is Miller better? Maybe. Someday. Their cards were on the table, but Gene Littler won the Crosby pot

What was supposed to happen last week when the world of professional golf reached the Monterey Peninsula celebrity ghetto is that a couple of blond millionaires named Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, upon meeting for the first time in 1975, would slap each other rudely across the cheek with abalone steaks, draw out flashing sand wedges, and stage a duel through the tweed forest bordering the 17 Mile Drive. It would be bloody and for keeps, and the victor would get to dine that night in quaint Carmel on blue-chip portfolio en aspic and Rolls-Royce du jour.

This is an article from the Feb. 3, 1975 issue Original Layout

Instead, what actually happened was that old pro Gene Littler, who joined the millionaire club only last season after 21 years on the circuit, led the last two rounds of the 34th annual Bing Crosby National Pro-Am to finish four strokes ahead of Hubert Green. As Littler shot a final-round 73 both Miller and Nicklaus had to struggle—Miller from eighth, Nicklaus from 16th—to finish tied for sixth at 289.

It was a rather inconclusive finish to Episode One in the Great Confrontation. For two weeks Johnny Miller had been the only golfer on the PGA tour. At Phoenix, Miller had shot a second-round 61 on the way to grabbing the year's first event by 14 strokes. In Tucson, Miller had recorded another 61, and taken the year's second event by nine strokes. Miller had banked $70,000. Nobody had ever before fired 61s on consecutive weeks in the long history of the tour. And Miller's combined winning margin of 23 strokes must rank as some sort of record without a category.

That Miller had started off like this after having been the dominant player of last year with his eight tour victories and a staggering $353,000 in prize money was almost too much to accept. Golf had a new king, Johnny Miller. Had pallbearers been selected for Jack Nicklaus' funeral in Lost Tree Village? No, wait. Perhaps that would be a bit hasty. There was this slim chance that if Nicklaus would come out here on the tour he could challenge Miller, and even though Jack was a complacent, decrepit 35 and Miller a virile, spunky 27, Nicklaus might be able to hold on awhile longer.

In any case, the Crosby would be their first clash, the beginning of a year-long rivalry in which it would be decided whether Johnny Miller was going to do to Jack Nicklaus what Jack Nicklaus had once done to Arnold Palmer. Thus, as people began gathering for the Crosby—that odd assortment of touring pros, plus Jack Lemmons and Minnesota Minings who are known simply as "friends of Bing"—there was little talk of anything else. And rather wonderfully, Miller and Nicklaus helped it along, as if each inwardly realized that this was a marvelous publicity gimmick for the sport.

The fact that neither one of them came any closer to winning the Crosby than Franco Harris was purely beside the point. So preoccupied was everyone with the "feud," there weren't even the standard weather jokes, or any pros vowing never to play Spyglass Hill again even if Bing gave them $5,000 in unmarked low-denomination bills, along with a year's supply of Minute Maid.

Nicklaus and Miller spent the first several days of the week never laying eyes on each other. Nicklaus, accompanied by his customary entourage of Pontiac dealers, shopping center developers and family chums from Columbus, was staying in the Del Monte Lodge on the premises of Pebble Beach, while Miller was not drinking, smoking or cursing in a private home located up the road. They seemed never to be in the same place at the same time, but they were both plenty visible and almost eager to discuss their so-called rivalry.

Separately, they agreed on several things. Nicklaus was still the greatest, but Jack was going to have to work now at staying the greatest. Miller had certainly arrived. He was no longer one of those other guys out there. He had the ability to dethrone Jack. And Miller had evidently decided that this was something he wanted to do. A year ago this would not have occurred to him, but repetitious success had convinced him that he was for real.

One afternoon Miller stood out on the terrace of the lodge, with Carmel Bay gleaming in the background and the sun's rays bounding off his golden good looks. Miller goes through life looking like a four-color Sears ad. He doesn't become human until he begins to talk. Then, he becomes a determined young guy who knows himself very well.

This day he was trying to explain the streak he was on, the 11 tournaments and almost half a million dollars he had won in the past 13 months. So let us now listen to Johnny Miller, freshly ordained superstar, and discover if we might not learn the secrets to wealth and happiness in his monologue:

"When I first came out here I only wanted to be a touring pro and make a living at it. I didn't think I had the game or the courage to be No. 1. I guess it first dawned on me that I was capable of it when I shot that 63 at Oakmont and won the U.S. Open. Some people have downgraded that. They say I went out early and finished early, and never experienced the pressure of the Open. That isn't true. I birdied the first four holes the final day, and at that point I knew I was either tied for the lead or a shot off. I played those last 14 holes under real pressure, and I stayed cool and won.

"The next thing that happened that sort of transformed my outlook on me was in Spain. Jack and I were the World Cup team. Wow. Me playing with Nicklaus. I wanted to play well so Jack wouldn't be disappointed in me. Well, I did. We won, but the main thing was, I beat Jack. I was even driving the ball up with him a lot. I was still growing and getting stronger.

"Then came last year, of course, which proved to me that I can really play this game. I started thinking, 'Hey, John, maybe you've got a chance to be the best there is.' I think I do. And I'll say it for publication: if Jack starts to slip a little, and I keep doing what I'm doing, I'm ready to take over.

"Look, I know what a lot of people think. Here's Jack, he's won 14 major championships and I've only won one, and until I've won about eight of them, some guys won't even want to discuss it. But the thing is, if you're talking about who's the best golfer, then you're talking about who's the best right now, and that would have to be me. Based on his career, Jack's a greater player than I am, of course. So are a lot of other people. And I'm even surprised to hear myself saying that I have a chance to be among the greatest, but my game keeps getting better and better, so here I am creating this rivalry by popping off.

"This will probably sound weird to some people, but I think one of my secrets is that I'm more in control of my subconscious than the other guys out here. I'm a mind-over-matter person and I apply it to my golf swing. I have myself programmed. Technically I've done two things that have improved my game. I'm holding onto the club tighter with the two bottom fingers of my left hand. What that does is give you more strength on the left side of your body, which is one of the keys to good golf. This muscle right here, under your left arm, it's the key muscle in golf.

"And then, the other thing, which no one has noticed, is that I've gone from a three-motion swing to a two-motion swing. I'm not as loose and I don't sway like I used to. I don't take the irons back as far. My swing is more of a solid thing. Instead of one...two...and...three, now it's one...two. My irons are even more accurate than they were, and I've always been the kind of golfer who hits a lot of shots close to the hole.

"Another thing which helps me is that I don't have too many diversions. My family and my game, that's it. I'm not going to build a business empire I have to worry about. Why try to turn $5 million into $10 million if you can't spend it all, anyhow, if it's going to complicate your life. I know what a lot of people think. 'What fun is it to be Johnny Miller if you can't smoke or drink?' All I can say to something like that is that every now and then I sneak out in my Porsche and rip it up to 118."

So much for the challenger. Now it is another day at the Crosby, and in the late afternoon Jack Nicklaus has gone out to one of the putting greens at the lodge to practice chipping with his trusty sand wedge. For a few days friends have been acting especially nice to Jack, giving his ego a rubdown. He has been hearing such things as, "The score's still 14-1 in favor of you, Babe," and, "Miller hasn't caught Trevino or Player yet, Jack, so how's he gonna get The Bear?"

Nicklaus listens while a man recites some revealing statistics. Take 1974. Go ahead, take it. Nicklaus and Miller head-to-head in the 16 tournaments they both played. You ready? Jack, old buddy, you finished ahead of him in 11 of those. Know that? Not only that, you beat him in all four major championships, where he was never a contender. And, as a matter of fact, Jack, baby, for those 16 tournaments you—you, Bear—you won more money than he did. You against him, one-on-one, it was Nicklaus $234,584 to Miller $203,362.

Jack Nicklaus smiles, and now we hear from The Man:

"Frankly, it's the best thing that could happen to me. Hell, yes, he got me out to the practice tee in Florida. I'm not particularly excited about being No. 2. I'll tell you this, he's the best of all of them coming up—but I've said that before. I've said he had the most potential, the best game. What we haven't known is how badly he wanted it.

"I've never done what he's done. Those scores. I haven't shot any 61s out there. I haven't won tournaments by 14 strokes. Here's something else. While he was doing what he did last year, I felt like I went the whole season without learning anything new about golf. It was the first time in my life I ever felt that way about the game. The combination of those things, and the way he's started out—that gets me out here jazzed up.

"He's got an edge on me, if you want to know the truth. He came into the game and made a living when he was thin and frail by chipping and putting. He developed his short game because he had to. I never had to do that. I came out as a big hitter and overpowered people. I never had to worry about the short game. He did. Now he's grown up. He's a strong kid and he is getting heavier every year. Now he's got the power game to go along with the finesse game. He's got it all, plus attitude.

"This is really a good thing when you think about it. It's good for the game, good for the tour. And it's better for me than anybody. Because I can't tell you how disinterested I am in being No. 2."

Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller finally saw each other on Friday in the press room of the Del Monte Lodge. Jack was completing an interview over the microphone when Johnny walked in, being the next invited guest, and sat down and stared up at Nicklaus. Both of them had shot 74 that day.

"Really took it apart, huh, Jack?" said Miller. "So did I."

Nicklaus leaned over and stuck out his hand.

"Congratulations on the past two weeks," said Nicklaus sincerely. "Really fantastic. Unbelievable."

"If I could have putted..." Johnny said with a twinkle.

Nicklaus got up from his chair to let Miller take over, and as Jack left the room he said, "You're heavier, aren't you?"

"Five pounds," said Miller.

Later Nicklaus said to someone, "What did he say he was? Five pounds heavier? He looks bigger. He's just a big, strong kid now with a hell of a golf game."

And Jack Nicklaus walked toward the practice tee.

PHOTOAfter tightening down his grip and loosening his mouth, Miller does some popping off.PHOTOAlways a power player, Nicklaus cites Miller's developing long game as giving Johnny an edge.PHOTOLittler won his first tournament since 1973 as the Great Confrontation played to a draw.