To the casual eye, he is still the golden boy who turned Oakmont inside out with a closing 63 five years ago to become the U.S. Open champion and then went on to win a dozen more tournaments and nearly $600,000 in 1974 and 1975. His hair is slightly darker now but still blond, he is bigger in the shoulders and chest but still lean, and his swing seems as fluid as ever. But something about Johnny Miller has changed—and it is reflected in the statistics the PGA keeps on its members.
Last year Miller failed to win a tournament and finished 48th on the money list. This year, in seven events, he has missed the cut three times and been disqualified once, for signing an incorrect scorecard. One of his three finishes was a 66th, another a 47th. Only at San Diego, where he tied for 11th, did Miller earn enough money ($4,200) to cover expenses. Arriving at Sawgrass, he was an ignoble 95th on the money list. And of his 18 rounds in 1978, only one was below 70—a 69 at Tucson.
Why? There are almost as many theories as there are players on the tour. His detractors—and Miller has picked up quite a few—say he is a crybaby, a quitter, a dog, tough to catch when in front but likely to pack it in when he falls behind. Others, less harsh, think Miller has become self-satisfied, that with money in the bank and with his various endorsements bringing in more lucre, he is complacent. Another theory is that the added muscle in his upper body—a result of heavy outdoor work he has done around his property in Napa, Calif.—has affected his suppleness and, thus, altered his swing.
But few feel Miller is finished. "He has too much natural ability to stay down long," says Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer thinks Miller has lost his ability to concentrate but considers it a temporary condition. "Maybe he got too much too fast," says Hubert Green. "He used to talk about how little he practiced. He's practicing a lot now."
For an hour at Sawgrass, Miller was vintage Miller. He opened the TPC with a birdie, rolling in a long putt, then got another at the 4th to go two under par—and onto the leader board. Just like old times. But at the 5th tee, using an iron for control on the dogleg par 4, Miller's shot sailed way right, the ball disappearing into a tree-filled swamp. As it did, Miller spun around in a half circle and slammed his club on the ground. Down from the leader board came J. Miller.
Three holes later he was out of bounds to the left, his drive stopping up against a condominium. Then, at the 13th, Miller did it for the third time, driving OB to the right. He dropped to his knees in disgust. After hitting again, he wandered alone up the left side of the fairway, gazing at the passing cars on A1A. When he reached the green, he putted out quickly, then sat dejectedly on his golf bag while his playing partners finished the hole.
Miller acted stunned when he finished with his 77. Two youngsters asked for autographs, and he complied without looking at them, but when a reporter tried to intercept his flight, Miller proceeded unchecked. "This is not the time, my friend," he said. Andy Martinez, his caddie, said, "We're going to tear up this course tomorrow."
But tomorrow was more of the same, only worse. On the 1st hole—his 10th of the day—Miller hit his drive in a familiar spot: out of bounds right. His second drive landed in the same OB area, and when he finally holed out, he had an 8. Miller finished with an 82 and missed the cut by six shots.
"Go find Bruce and see if he has Byron's number," Miller told Martinez. Bruce is Tom Watson's caddie, and Miller was about to seek the aid of Byron Nelson, the old pro who has done so much for Watson's game. "Byron wrote me a letter offering to help," Miller said. "He said he thinks he knows what I'm doing wrong. He took Watson and made him a good driver, and obviously I need help."
Miller sat on the trunk of his car in the club's parking lot. "What I need is one swing instead of 12," he said. "I had one going in San Diego—keeping the left shoulder high—and I don't know why I switched. Sometimes I think I'm too observant. I have about 300 swing keys. No kidding. It's a frightening thing. I have to get where my misses are better. I was tempted to walk off the course today after I hit those two out of bounds. But I forced myself to suck it in, finish the round and post the bad score."
With that Miller was off to Dallas to see Nelson, the swing doctor. Watson had given him the number, rattling it off from memory. If Nelson's medicine works, Miller may memorize it himself.