Undiplomatic Acuity Johnny Miller's piercing analysis helped make the Ryder Cup riveting television

Oct. 04, 1999
Oct. 04, 1999

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Oct. 4, 1999

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Undiplomatic Acuity Johnny Miller's piercing analysis helped make the Ryder Cup riveting television

The 33rd Ryder Cup was the gravest athletic event ever contested
on American soil. We know this because golf commentators last
week constantly used the phrase American soil. American soil is
a media trump card, reserved for only the most solemn of
stories: Terrorist attacks occur on American soil. War heroes
return to American soil. And last week, divots were taken in
American soil. "Nineteen eighty-seven was the first time," The
Golf Channel's Peter Kessler somberly said of the home team last
Thursday, "that the U.S. lost on American soil." Baseball,
meanwhile, is still played on dirt.

This is an article from the Oct. 4, 1999 issue Original Layout

Perhaps it was appropriate--what with the fate of nations at
stake--that the Ryder Cup was broadcast in the language of
international diplomacy. Still, it takes some getting used to.
Previously, a six-hour round of golf was considered
excruciatingly slow, a capital crime. But when Sergio Garcia and
Jesper Parnevik played one on Friday, a disembodied fairway
reporter on the USA Network hailed "the deliberate play" of the
Europeans. Loudmouthed, Monty-baiting drunks in the gallery
became, in the poetry of NBC's Dick Enberg, "those who enjoy a

For those who enjoy a heckle, Ryder Cup coverage provided much
material. The Golf Channel set up club chairs and a cherry
coffee table--complete with art books--outdoors at the Country
Club, turning its lawn into the alfresco library of a tweedy
men's club. The Golf Channel never airs a rerun of its coverage;
rather, it brings you an Encore Presentation. In every one of
its on-air references to Byron Nelson (and these references were
manifold, believe me), the former American captain became "Lord
Byron." TV seemed set on rendering the Ryder Cup more
overwrought than anything by the actual Lord Byron, turning the
tournament into a stifling costume drama, To Halve and Halve Not.

Thank heaven, then, for Johnny Miller. Miller steamed into our
living rooms on Friday afternoon and began speaking like a man
on sodium pentothal. Those of us who spent all weekend making
what Homer Simpson calls an "ass groove" in our sofas craved
Miller's candor. He didn't encrypt or euphemize. He was the
viewer surrogate. On a blown putt by Phil Mickelson: "He just
cannot make those super-key putts." On a blown putt by Justin
Leonard: "That was not a good first putt." On a blown putt by
Davis Love III: "You can see that look [on his face] of, Wow,
that wasn't any good." Exactly. He said everything you were
thinking ("He's won a lot of PGA events," Miller declared of
Mickelson, "but not the big ones") and many things that you
weren't: Addressing a desperate golfer in deep rough, Miller
suggested, "He's gotta basically play a controlled muffburger."

I have no idea what that meant--surely muffburger is one of the
FCC's Seven Words You Can't Say on Television--but the line's
very lack of blandness somehow crystallized what TV golf needs:
More muffburger, less Musburger. Miller had won me over.

And so on Sunday, for the fourth consecutive day (counting the
opening ceremonies), I settled into my ass groove, ate an Encore
Presentation of yesterday's meat loaf and giddily gave in again
to the addictive properties of the Ryder Cup. With every wailing
bagpipe, every clogging windpipe, I thought of something Miller
had said at one moment of this high television drama, even
before America's stirring redemption on American soil. "Whoever
thought you'd have to take a sedative," he laughed, "while
watching golf?"

He sounded as surprised as I was.