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Hanging On For Dear Life After a suicide try and a battle with the bottle, Allen Miller has vowed to make the most of his second chance

April 05, 1999
April 05, 1999

Table of Contents
April 5, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Hanging On For Dear Life After a suicide try and a battle with the bottle, Allen Miller has vowed to make the most of his second chance

Cindy Kessler Miller stood in the shadow of the big scoreboard
at Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort on a cloudless afternoon in
Tampa last December, leaned in close to her husband and said
softly, "Know what, honey? We're going to be all right."

This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue

Allen Miller smiled, which was a feat in itself. In front of him
the board was filling up with long rows of black, handwritten
numbers, and for Miller they were quickly adding up to a
disappointment.

Four months after his 50th birthday, in his first bid at
qualifying for the Senior tour, Miller had come up short, way
short. A tidy, one-over-par 73 in the final round had boosted
him to 49th place, a laudable finish in, say, the New York City
Marathon. But at the grueling 72-hole Q school, in which only
the spry survive, Miller had not been a factor, missing the
event's coveted prize--the top eight finishers got a year's pass
on the Senior tour--by 12 shots.

Yet unlike other contestants who left Florida without their
cards, Miller could claim a partial victory--not so much over the
course or the field of 160 weather-beaten competitors, but over
the inner demons that three years ago nearly brought his life to
a violent end. On Feb. 21, 1996, Miller, a 14-year veteran of the
PGA Tour, a five-time starter at the Masters, a two-time Walker
Cupper and once one of the brightest stars of amateur golf, tried
to kill himself.

Ask and he tells you about it--in a chilling narrative that's
shockingly graphic, considering that it's coming from a man
remembered by his former colleagues on the Tour as being so shy
he found it difficult to nod hello as he passed in the locker
room.

He explains turning points and setbacks: a Tour career that
fizzled rather than sizzled; an unhappy decade spent grinding
out lessons at a driving range near Buffalo; a taste for booze
that nearly destroyed his marriage; and, finally, a desperate,
near fatal plea for help. "I might start crying here in a
minute," says Miller, a stocky man at 5'9" and 180 pounds with
wisps of thinning yellow hair and a pinkish face. He pulls off
his wire-rimmed eyeglasses and mops the tears from his cheek.
"So I cry," he says, and then laughs. "So what?"

It's easier to laugh now, but back in '96 the world was a gloomy
place for Miller, darkened by 20 years of bad breaks and
self-destructive impulses. For someone whose swing had been
touted in the '70s as one of the most fluid on the Tour, Miller
was nowhere--a hired hand at a golf range closer to Canada than
Augusta National. That February he left Cindy, a former LPGA
player, and their three children, Kelly, Jamie and Matt, now 16,
13 and 12 respectively, and fled to his mother's home in Tampa.
He did not know whether he would be away a month or a year, only
that "I had to get out of that scenario," Miller says.

His despair deepened in Florida. "I got more and more depressed,
staying in my room most of the time," he says. "Then one day I
decided I'd never come out." The tears well up again. "I looked
at myself and all I could say was, 'You're worthless.'"

Miller had few assets. One was a $250,000 life insurance policy.
"I figured Cindy and the kids could pay the debts and move on--if
I committed suicide," he says.

Alone in the small, spare bedroom, Miller placed a plastic bag
over his head and waited to lose consciousness. "All that
happened was my face got sweaty," he says. Next, he calmly
removed a light bulb from a lamp and prepared to stick his
finger into the live socket. If that didn't kill him, Miller
says, he planned to "throw the radio, plugged in, into the
bathtub, jump in and get it over real quick." Before he could
get his finger in the socket, though, Miller was interrupted by
his sister, Marlou, and hours later he voluntarily entered a
Tampa psychiatric hospital, where depression was diagnosed.

In the three years since that long night, Miller has been trying
to regain control of his life. He says he quit alcohol in July
1996, he's back together with Cindy--although both acknowledge
that theirs is a rocky marriage--and, not withstanding his
setback at Q school, he guarantees he'll be a Tour player again.
"It is going to happen," he says. "Count on it."

Mention Allen Miller to the golfers who grew up with him in the
amateur ranks and later on the Tour, and the talk inevitably
turns to his swing. "I always considered Allen one of the best
ball-strikers the Tour had," says Bruce Fleisher, who teamed
with Miller at the 1969 Walker Cup.

"The guy hit it so straight, so consistently it was
unbelievable," says Joe Inman, runner-up in Miller's only Tour
victory, the 1974 Tallahassee Open.

"God gave me a talent to hit a golf ball," Miller acknowledges.
"I tell you what, I can strike a golf ball with anybody. That's
not being cocky. If they want to go one-on-one with a club, let's
go."

Miller grew up in Pensacola, Fla., the son of a prominent
urologist. He was the Florida high school champ and then a star
on the Georgia team. Miller won a raft of amateur tournaments
and three of four singles matches in the Walker Cup, in which he
represented the U.S. in 1971 as well as '69. In the fall of '71,
Miller breezed through the regular Tour's Q school, shooting the
low round of the tournament and joining a rookie class that
included David Graham, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson. But once on
the Tour, his career languished. In amateur golf Miller had
become a success by shooting 70s and 71s with wonderful
monotony. "As an amateur, it was nothing for me to make 18 pars
or hit 18 greens in regulation," he says. To succeed as a pro he
needed more--more birdies and, some said, more self-confidence.
"On Tour the big winners are the guys who demand the stage, the
ones who say, 'Move over buddy, it's my turn,'" says Inman.
"Allen was not that kind of person."

In 1972, his first full season, Miller finished 101st on the
money list. The next year he improved to 62nd. In 12 more seasons
he never finished higher than 71st. A friend tagged him Black 99,
a cutting reference to the spot on the money list that he seemed
to own.

A finesse player, Miller began to question everything about his
game. Never particularly long, he revamped his swing in an
attempt to gain distance. That only made things worse. "As hard
as he worked on his game, he didn't get a lot out of it," says
Steve Melnyk, the '69 U.S. Amateur champ and later an ABC analyst.

Says Miller, "It got to the point where I was
grinding...grinding until I ground myself down like a coffee
bean. I felt like a complete disappointment to anybody who
thought I should be doing better."

Then there was the alcohol. At parties the introverted Miller
thought he was friendlier after a vodka and tonic. "People drink
for liquid courage. That's what I did," he says. Miller got
looped often enough for other players to notice and privately
discuss his problem. "I'd see him at a party, drinking and
slurring his words," says Inman. "My father was a functioning
alcoholic, so I felt I understood Allen."

In 1983, at the Doral-Eastern Open Invitational, Miller led by a
shot after two rounds. A victory could have revived his career.
That night, at dinner with friends, Cindy says her husband "got
bombed. Leading the tournament and he's drunk. I wanted to throw
up." Miller, who had been nine under on Friday evening, went four
over on the weekend and finished 15th. He never led again on a
weekend.

When Miller's Tour career sputtered to a halt in 1985, he had no
idea what to do next. During his last tournament, the Pensacola
Open, he put a novel want ad on the scoreboard: THANKS FOR THE
MEMORIES; NOW GIVE ME A JOB. No one did. The $427,105 Miller had
won over the years was now a mere statistic. "I left the Tour
with $3,000 in the bank," he says, "and after a month and a half
there wasn't anything left."

Many of Miller's contemporaries parlayed their Tour careers into
well-paying jobs within the golf industry. Miller's inability to
find work began the moment he left the Tour and continues to
this day. In 1985 Cindy helped him land a temporary teaching
assignment at the range near Buffalo, her hometown. The job was
supposed to last the summer. Miller stayed 11 years.

While he taught others, Miller more or less abandoned his own
game, seldom playing a full round and rarely keeping score. He
lost touch with his friends from the Tour. Inman recalls passing
through Buffalo seven or eight years ago and finding his old
comrade "lost and dispirited. Money was definitely a problem,"
Inman says. Drinking, too. More than once, Miller showed up at
the driving range with a buzz on. "I shouldn't have," he says,
"but I did."

In May 1996, three months after attempting suicide, Miller hit
bottom again. On a Friday morning he left home and failed to
return. The next day he was a no-show for Jamie's 11th birthday
party. Cindy, a golf instructor who also owns a small apparel
company, had become accustomed to her husband's unannounced
absences, but this was different. This was Jamie's birthday. On
Sunday she called the police.

"I was preparing myself," she says. "After the suicide attempt
and everything else, it wouldn't have surprised me if there had
been a knock on the door and someone said, 'I hate to tell you
this, but we found Allen and he's dead.'"

Four days after he had driven off, Miller called home. "He was
sitting in a hotel room, 40 miles away," Cindy says. "His
reaction: 'I'm fine. What are you worried about?'"

Miller checked himself into another hospital, this time to be
treated for his drinking problem. He hasn't had a drink--or, he
adds, a suicidal thought--since he completed the program. "Do I
miss alcohol?" he says. "Not at all. Have a beer right now if
you want. I'm not interested." Cigarettes, though, still
interest him. He can go through a pack or more a round. "But I'm
quitting," he says. "Tomorrow."

Miller began to dream about the Senior tour after the suicide
attempt. Lying in his bed in Tampa, he switched on TV and
watched part of a Senior event. The leader was Bruce Crampton,
who had also battled depression. That's me, Miller remembers
thinking. I'm in the same boat. There's hope.

The Senior tour has been his obsession ever since. Last August,
a few days after he turned 50, a Senior tour official called
inquiring whether he would be interested in teeing it up that
week in the First America Classic in Ada, Mich. (As a tournament
winner on the regular Tour, Miller was on a list of eligible
players.) The catch: He would be the second alternate. Two
players would have to drop out for him to make the field.

Miller jumped at the chance and drove all night from Buffalo.
When he arrived at Egypt Valley Country Club, he learned that he
was in. The 74 he shot in the opening round marked the first
time he had kept score in three years. With Jamie as his caddie,
Miller followed with a 73 and a 75, finished 45th and won
$4,000. He has yet to play in a second tournament.

Miller says his plan for this year is to work on his game and
try to qualify for as many Senior events as he can afford to
travel to. When he's not on the course, Miller intends to speak
at every Boys and Girls club, AA meeting and mental-health
clinic that will have him. "I do want to sit down with people
who are hurting and tell my story," he says. "There's nothing
worse than trying to take your life. Nothing. To think that
would make things better for you, for your family, it's so
screwed up, yet I thought it. I almost did it."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Burning desire Miller, a veteran of 14 unremarkable years on the PGA Tour, is fired up about the Senior circuit.COLOR PHOTO: LEONARD KAMSLER Glory days After a brilliant amateur career, Miller aced Q school and took his classic swing on the Tour in 1972.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Better half A former LPGA player, Cindy was there for Allen in December when he tried to earn his Senior tour card in Tampa.
"I decided I'd never come out of my room," says Miller. "I looked
at myself and all I could say was, 'You're worthless.'"
That night, Cindy says her husband "got bombed. Leading the
tournament and he's drunk. I wanted to throw up."