Johnny Miller has been many things during his remarkable life in
golf, from golden-haired sex symbol and fearless rival for Jack
Nicklaus's throne to his current station as the game's sharpest
commentator. His Senior tour debut last week at the Franklin
Quest Championship, in Park City, Utah, found Miller in his most
unlikely incarnation yet: a jittery pledge being hazed by salty
upperclassmen in the 50-and-over fraternity.
In the minutes before last Friday's opening round Miller could
be found pacing the 1st tee of Park Meadows Golf Club, muttering
forced asides to the gallery and fidgeting violently in a doomed
attempt to exorcise his nervous energy. Meanwhile, his
67-year-old playing partners, Don January and Arnold Palmer,
couldn't help sharing a bemused look and a few laughs at
"Think he's housebroken, or is he too young?" Palmer teased.
Catching a glimpse of the bottom of Miller's shoes, the King
further applied the needle. "Softspikes, huh?" Palmer asked
mockingly. "You really are trying to act like a Senior."
When Miller sidled up to January and asked a boneheaded question
about the course yardage guide, January flashed a priceless grin
and said loud enough to draw some chuckles from the gallery,
"My, you have been away a long time, haven't you?"
Indeed he has. Miller unofficially retired from competitive golf
in the fall of 1989, chased by an oppressive case of the yips
and the desire to spend more time with his wife and six kids
(who these days range from age 17 to 27). He began working for
NBC the following January and ever since has pulled his sticks
out of mothballs only a couple of times each year. It was at
just such a revival, the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am,
that Miller, then 46, came up with one of his most outrageous
performances, scraping it around his favorite course for a
one-shot victory, the 24th in a career that includes wins in the
1973 U.S. and the '76 British Opens.
It was the fresh memory of that victory, as well as Miller's
brash predictions through the years that he would have little
trouble drumming the old guys, that made his the most hotly
anticipated Senior debut since Nicklaus punched in seven years
ago. Miller further stoked interest by arriving fashionably
late: His 50th birthday was on April 29.
History will show that Miller's first poke as a Senior was a
long tall draw that didn't, finding a fairway bunker on the
right. He went on to shoot 72-70-73, one under par and good for
44th place, 14 shots behind winner Dave Stockton. Perhaps that
was to be expected from a guy who claimed that he had played
only 15 rounds in 1997 coming into Park City and who remains
ambivalent about how much of his attention he is willing to give
the Senior tour.
"I'm alive," is how Miller summed up his debut. "This tour has
made me feel alive again. It's gotten the nerves jangling."
In fact it was those nerves--or more specifically, a lack of
nerve on the greens--that kept Miller from making serious noise
at the Quest. "I putted like it was 1989," he said, which is to
say, miserably. A ghastly 95 putts over three rounds, which was
12 more than Stockton needed, torpedoed some impressive ball
striking. During the first round Miller averaged more than 300
yards a drive (not shabby, even at altitude), hit 14 greens in
regulation and was still only even par. "I shot 67 today," he
said of his 72, which included 31 jabs with the flatstick. "You
give any decent player my ball where it was on the greens, and
he would have shot at least 67. Arnold and Don made me look like
Ray Charles out there."
During Saturday's second round Miller had 16 Guns n' Roses
(greens in regulation) but spent 33 putts. Desperate, he
considered the unheard-of on Sunday: stuffing two putters into
his bag. Instead he stuck with the one he had used for the first
two rounds (an ugly, jerry-built contraption that is eight
inches longer than normal and swollen with adhesive tape).
"I've tried everything," he says. "Keeping my eyes closed,
looking at the hole, opening the toe, closing the toe, calling
out a cadence, you name it. I putted crappy, and it will
probably continue that way."
It is this discouraging fact that clouds Miller's future on the
Senior tour. On July 29 he was to play Nicklaus at the Olympic
Club in San Francisco for a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf
segment, but after that he's not planning to compete again until
October. The next two months will be consumed by his NBC duties,
notably the Ryder Cup and all the attendant hype. Come the fall,
he's planning to play three tournaments in four weeks, beginning
Oct. 10 at the Transamerica on the course where he makes his
home, Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif. "If I don't show
some improvement in my putting, I don't know how much I'll play
in the future," he says. "Who knows? I might become a ceremonial
golfer, playing only twice a year--here in Utah and at the
This was not a popular sentiment. "I want to see more of him,"
says Stockton. "It's the Senior tour's loss if he doesn't play
more. You're talking about a multiple major championship winner,
a personality, someone who knows how to handle people. He's a
big boost for the tour."
And how, judging by the Millermania that broke out at Park
Meadows. Tournament organizers couldn't provide an exact head
count but did declare the crowds the largest in the event's
11-year history, and Miller charmed his fans with an easy
rapport and a ham's delight at being back on center stage.
Miller's TV work may have extended his fame to a younger
generation, but this crowd clearly came to celebrate who he was,
not who he is. The most raucous cheers were heard when Miller
covered the flagsticks as he did in the old days--remember the
1975 Phoenix Open, when he won by 14 strokes? Miller set the
sizable contingent of ladies in the gallery aflutter with his
rakishly upturned collar and ever-present smile, a phenomenon
that was first chronicled in a breathless PEOPLE magazine piece
from 1974 that began, "To the thousands of women who trail him
around the golf courses of America, Johnny Miller is their
Robert Redford in Sears, Roebuck double-knits."
Such an overheated welcome was no surprise, considering that
Miller has been a local hero since his days starring at BYU. In
fact, Miller's ties to Utah golf explain why he chose the
Franklin Quest for his debut. A cofounder of the Utah Junior
Golf Association and still its honorary chairman, Miller gave
his $3,700 in prize money to the organization, just as he has
pledged to donate all future Senior tour earnings to other
Miller curried more favor by proving he reserves his most
lacerating analysis for his own game, and he offered his
galleries a steady and often amusing commentary on his play.
This began on the 3rd hole of his first round, when, after
holing a six-footer for par necessitated by a sickly first putt,
he said to no one in particular, "I'm gagging, but I'm gagging
O.K." After leaving his tee shot 25 yards short on the par-3
4th, Miller groaned, "I tried to swing so easy I whiffed it."
Two holes later, after an unsightly lag putt, he bellowed, "Nice
jab, Johnny. Way to shank it."
Miller's competitors weren't openly reveling in his struggles,
but there was a sense that he was due for some comeuppance. Even
Miller acknowledged it. "They [the other players] want to see me
come out because they want to see me screw up," he said. "They
all wish they could have a mike and say, 'Hey, Johnny, nice
putt. Little yipper there, huh?'"
What really interests Miller are the golf careers of two of his
sons, Todd, 17, a top amateur, and Andy, 19, a freshman at BYU
who won the Western Athletic Conference title in April. Miller
rarely misses one of his sons' tournaments, and he spent much of
last week on the phone back to the Philadelphia area, where Todd
was competing in his first U.S. Junior, a tournament that had a
particular emotional resonance for the old man because it was
the first significant national event he won. Todd finished
second in the stroke-play qualifying at Aronimink, with a 69-73,
and played his first match on Friday morning. Before teeing off,
Johnny called the family hotel room in Philadelphia hoping for
no answer, which would mean that Todd had won and was still
playing. This led to the following conversation with his wife.
Linda Miller: "Hello?"
Johnny: "Aw, piss."
Not being there for Todd after his loss (5 and 4 to Jim Park of
Fullerton, Calif.) is exactly the kind of thing that bothers
Miller. "There's a little bit of a war going on," he says of his
Which side should we expect to win out? This was put to Linda
Miller, who beat the sun to the airport on Saturday morning so
she could get to Utah in time for her husband's second round.
The query was greeted with a long, throaty laugh. "I never know
from one day to the next what he's going do," she said. "That's
kind of the family joke: What's Johnny up to now?"
Says the man himself, "I've already done my golf, O.K.? That's
the hardest thing for people to understand. I don't need golf.
That could change. In a way, I hope it does."