When Johnny Miller walked off the 4th green during the first day of the Masters last year, he was already three over par. He had bogeyed the 1st, 2nd and 4th holes, all of them on putts of five feet or less.
"My word," he thought on his way to the 5th tee, "I've sort of blown myself out of this thing."
Happily for golf and young men who will one day be old men with grandchildren to tell the story to, Johnny Miller had not blown himself out. He floundered through the rest of that day to a 75, sank enough putts on Friday to make the cut and then, on Saturday, on the front nine, launched the comeback that turned the 1975 Masters into a tournament that will always be remembered. Scattering scoring records in his wake like dogwood petals, by Sunday Miller had pulled himself from 11 strokes off the lead into a tie with Tom Weiskopf for second at 277, a total that would have won all but three previous Masters, and forced Jack Nicklaus to perform miracles of his own, such as holing a 40-foot putt at 16 on Sunday (right), to win by a single stroke.
Miller had arrived in Augusta the previous Sunday night feeling good. He, his wife Linda, and Weiskopf, who had just won the Greater Greensboro Open, were flown in from Greensboro in a private plane provided by GGO sponsors. The Millers were met at the Augusta airport by friends, and they moved into a comfortable rented house only four blocks from the gate to Augusta National. Miller knew it was going to be a good week as soon as he discovered he had also rented a swimming pool, a pool table, a Ping-Pong table and a basketball hoop in the driveway.
April 5, 1976
Furthermore, early Monday evening, while he was fishing alone on the pond that forms the centerpiece of the picturesque par-3 course just west of the clubhouse, he caught a nine-pound large-mouth bass, the biggest ever taken from that pond. "It was getting dark, and I saw this big fish come out of the shadow near the bank, grab the bait and turn around and go back."
Miller, who is actually a Mormon fisherman who happens to play golf, bounded up the hill to the clubhouse and burst in—wet tennis shoes, wriggling bass and all—on the sedate dinner held each year in honor of the foreign players.
"You'd think he'd won the U.S. Open," said Jerome Franklin the next morning. Franklin is one of two surviving original members of Augusta National, the other being Clifford Roberts. Until that night he had been the holder of the Augusta National largemouth bass record at 8¾ pounds.
Miller was determined to enjoy the Masters as he had not the year before. He played leisurely practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but he hit no practice balls. "When you get in a major tournament, especially the first major tournament of the year, a bell goes off the first day, and you tend to revert to what is natural to you," he said recently. "If you've been hitting a lot of balls, working on something new, you revert to somewhere between what you've been working on and your old swing, and you end up being very confused."
The year before, Miller came to the Masters with four tournament wins and great expectations. He had worked hard, played poorly and tied for 15th. Last year he hit no more than 20 balls on the practice tee to warm up and none at all after his rounds. "It only happens to me maybe three or four times a year," he said. "My swing felt so good and I felt so relaxed and loose that I remember on the fourth day going to the practice tee thinking, 'Shoot, I'm not even going to hit any balls." I didn't need to warm up."
Feeling as good as he did, Miller's 75 the first day was a shocker. In the press room after the round he sounded slightly querulous. "If I'd been putting, I might have had 68 or 69...15 greens in regulation...hitting it longer than I ever did here.... Some days I hit lousy putts, and they go in. Today I was hitting good putts, and they wouldn't go in the hole."
But it was true. Even average putting would probably have given him a 71 or 72, and either score, it turned out, would have won the tournament. On Friday his 71 reflected a slight improvement. At first he told the press, "I'm putting crummy." Then, in an afterthought, he added, "Not crummy, just not sharp." He was still missing some short putts—he two-putted from four feet for a bogey on the 12th—but he also made a couple. He survived the cut by three strokes, but he seemed hopelessly behind Nicklaus, the leader. The scoreboard watchers under the ancient oak on the clubhouse terrace wrote him off.
"I wasn't displeased," said Miller. "It could have been better, but I was happy to make the cut. I was having so much fun that week I wanted to stay around a little longer."
An alarm should sound when Johnny Miller talks about feeling good. It generally means something is about to happen. At the Bob Hope this year he shot a 71 the first round, nothing special, and said, "I feel good. I think I'm going to win." He did, with a 63 in the final round.
"I don't give up on myself because I know I'm capable of things like that," he said. "For me it's a game of patience. If I'm feeling rested, feeling good, it's a matter of waiting for it to happen, like a time bomb. Maybe it won't happen till Monday, and then the week is gone, but I have the ability. Like the 63 at Oakmont. I win tournaments on the strength of one round most of the time, so for me it's a case of avoiding a 74 or 5 or 6 and being patient."
Friday night Miller and Andy Martinez, his tour caddie, and another friend shot baskets in the driveway of the rented house and barbecued steaks in the backyard. Miller was on the 1st tee at 12:26 the next day, and he parred the 1st hole, though he cannot remember how. On No. 2, a par-5 with a slight dogleg to the left, he drove "around the corner," then hit a five-wood into the shallow bunker at the left front of the green, not far from the pin, a good spot to be. He knocked the ball out of the bunker to one foot and sank the putt. It was a routine birdie which put him one over par for the tournament and 10 strokes back of Nicklaus.
On the 3rd hole, a short par-4, he hit a three-wood and a wedge about 14 feet from the hole and made the putt. Another routine birdie, and he was even par.
No. 4 is a 220-yard par-3, the longest 3 on the course. Miller hit a two-iron that landed 10 feet to the right of the pin. "When I made that putt," he said, "I got pretty intrigued. Then when I birdied 5, which is a really hard hole, with a 14-footer from behind the pin, I said to myself, 'All right!' "
At the par-3 6th, where the tee is high on a bluff overlooking a rolling green 190 yards away, Miller hit a five-iron that stopped one foot from the hole. "Now I'm in a heck of a streak," he remembered. "That made five in a row, and I knew I had a chance at 7 or 8 because I'd been cookin' pretty good."
The 7th is a 365-yard par-4. Miller played it with a three-wood and a wedge, but his second shot missed the putting surface. The 7th green is crowned, and the pin that day was atop the crown and 35 feet away. "It was the kind of putt you just try to make in two," said Miller. "When it went in I said, 'My word, I may never stop making birdies.' "
He did stop, temporarily, on the next hole, but he had already broken the record set by Hale Irwin and Gary Player in 1974 of five straight, and by the turn he had his course record of 30 for the front nine.
With one more birdie on the back nine, Miller had a 65. His time bomb had gone off, and it had catapulted him from 27th place to third, five under par. Weiskopf, with a 66, took over first at nine under going into the last day, while Nicklaus, who struggled with a 73, fell into second, eight under.
Now, Johnny Miller is a very good last-round player. His 61 at Tucson, 63 at Oakmont and 63 at the Hope this year are the three lowest closing rounds in history. On Sunday he and Weiskopf were the last pairing, and the dramatic possibilities of that position appealed to Miller. He was relaxed and confident, partly because Weiskopf was not out-driving him as often or by as much as usual. His ball found every fairway and every green all day; he played the front nine in 32, four under par; yet somehow, until late that afternoon, when he birdied the 17th hole to tie Weiskopf, one stroke behind Nicklaus, he did not feel he was part of the action.
"Up to then I was sort of freewheeling. I had this feeling that I was in the background, in the shadows, even though I was playing a very good round," he recalls. "I knew there was a chance, and I was trying. But they were playing so good that I never said to myself, 'I can catch these guys.' When you've got Nicklaus and Weiskopf playing good golf ahead of you, you've got to just play your own game and hope for the best. You can't expect to catch them."
Seventeen made all the difference. After a good drive and a seven-iron that should have been a six-iron, Miller's ball was on the green, but 25 feet short of the hole. His putt, however, had not traveled 10 feet before Miller's arm was in the air. He knew he'd made it.
At the moment the crowd roared, Nicklaus was bent over a 12-footer on the 18th green. He backed off, waiting to learn from the scoreboard whether the birdie was for a pursuing Miller or a tying Weiskopf. When he saw it was Miller, he settled back down and two-putted for a par.
"All of a sudden," says Miller, "I was in position to tie Jack, and boy I was pumped. I was really pumped, like when I was a rookie and had a chance to win."
The 420-yard 18th is the only hole at Augusta that plays left to right off the tee. Last year it played harder than any other hole on the course because of some young pines that had been planted on the left side of the fairway, in a favored landing area of the long hitters. Weiskopf hit a tremendous drive, up and over everything, and a good wedge left him an eight-foot putt for a tying birdie. Miller cut his drive around the corner, what he calls a "Trevino shot," and aimed a six-iron just to the right of the hole. He wound up with a 20-footer, "about a one-in-10 putt, I figured."
Miller's putt broke to the left of the hole, Weiskopf's stopped short and Jack Nicklaus, watching from the entrance to the scorer's tent, had won his fifth Masters. Miller's 66, combined with his 65 the day before, set a 36-hole scoring record, and though it was only good enough for a second-place tie, it was a finish he could be proud of.
On a warm spring morning in California's Napa Valley with the 1976 Masters only a few weeks away, Miller stood at the edge of the pond in front of his house, showing his daughter Kelly how David disposed of Goliath. First he placed a pebble in a small sling on a six-foot-long leather thong attached to his left wrist. Then he spun the pebble in its pouch until it whirred, released the thong, and the missile thudded into the bank on the other side of the pond.
"I hate to say it [whirr] because it'll make me try too hard [thud], but right now [whirr] I'd rather win the Masters than any tournament [thud]."