The U.S. Open began on Saturday afternoon at a little past 12:30,
when Johnny Miller came on TV and said that Tiger Woods's swing
was a mess, that the wind would come up at 2 p.m. and change
everything and that Phil Mickelson could be the best player in
the world for the next three to five years. Yes, golf was played
on Thursday and Friday, and yes, Miller worked those rounds. But
on Saturday millions of people--lounging on the sofa at home,
waistband pager finally off, Doritos within easy reach--turned on
NBC and got their first real glimpse of Shinnecock Hills and the
players there, through the eyes of a 57-year-old former Tour pro
with a little boy's name. They never knew what Johnny Miller was
going to say next, and neither did he. ¬∂ Miller is famous for
some biting comments over the years. He raised the ire of Justin
Leonard at the 1999 Ryder Cup (saying Leonard "should be home
watching on TV") and Craig Parry at Doral this year (claiming
his swing "would make Ben Hogan puke") and has annoyed scores
of other elite golfers, male and female, professional and
amateur. He was the first golf commentator to talk about
choking, and he seems weirdly fixated on the verb to puke in
its various conjugated forms. He's better known for that stuff
than for winning the '73 U.S. Open and the '76 British Open,
when he was skinny and stylish and young.
At Shinnecock Hills last week Woods did a rare thing, for him. He
addressed his TV-tower critics. In a press conference he said,
"Some of these analysts speak from how they perceive the swing
should be or how they used to play. We laugh about it on Tour,
how these guys think they know everything." Asked about Woods's
comments, Miller said, "He didn't mention me by name." It
wouldn't be like Miller to try to get by on a technicality, and
he wasn't. "The fact is, I could show you any swing he made, from
2000 or when he was playing amateur golf or when he was a junior
or when he was three, and he never took it past parallel. He
never had a wrist cock of more than 90 degrees. Now he does."
When the golf magazines conduct surveys to identify the best TV
analysts, Miller regularly appears at the top of the heap. These
results are written off at the other networks. They say a rip-job
artist is being rewarded for playing to a sports culture that
wants to see millionaire athletes demeaned. That is likely part
of Miller's popularity. After generations of gentleman talkers,
after Henry Longhurst and Dave Marr and Ken Venturi, Miller broke
the candor line and helped make TV golf part of the mainstream
sportscape. But there's more to Miller's appeal than that. Miller
is endlessly teaching an unconquerable game, one played by many
of his viewers. Part of his odd charm--and charm is his weakest
attribute--is that he has no idea how he does it. The stuff
simply comes out of his mouth. Unspoken thought? What's that?
He's a savant, golf's Rain Man.
On Saturday, shortly after he came on the air, he spoke of Round
3 as "moving day." Nothing memorable there. Venturi clung to that
phrase for decades. It's beyond a cliche. But then Miller,
speaking extemporaneously, said something wholly original about
playing holes 37 through 54 in a U.S. Open. He said the Saturday
round "gives you a chance to play your game." You, of course, was
not you but the players left in the field. He's getting you to
think like a player, getting you off the couch and on the course.
You could spend the rest of the afternoon interpreting that line,
if you were so inclined.
June 27, 2004
One interpretation: On Thursday and Friday your first job as a
player is to make sure you don't screw up, that you make the cut.
You're still learning the course and you're playing with a
survivalist's conservatism. On Sunday, especially late on Sunday
with your name on people's lips, you're playing off the leader
board. You might hit driver where you didn't plan to. But on
Saturday you do your own thing. You play the course exactly the
way you want to play it. There are no other agendas. Told of
Miller's line when he was through with his Saturday round, Mike
Weir said, "He's right. On Saturday you play the course how you
want to play it. Nothing forces your hand. It's not an insight
for me, but it probably would be for my buddies at home."
Being right is why Miller is so valuable to NBC, which has the
USGA contract through 2008. The first U.S. Open Miller ever
worked was at Shinnecock, in 1995, when Corey Pavin won. On
highlight tapes Pavin has seen himself hit his four-wood second
shot on the final hole over and over. He knows the audio by
heart. "When I hit that shot, Johnny said, 'It's the shot of his
life,'" says Pavin. "He was right. He's not afraid to voice an
opinion, and usually he's right."
Miller isn't simply teaching us. Davis Love III grew up in the
game. All his life he had heard that even par, round after round,
will keep you right in a U.S. Open. But he didn't really
understand what that meant until he heard Miller say one day, "In
a U.S. Open, pars are the good guys. They wear white hats." A
light went on for Love, courtesy of Miller: Every time you make a
par in a U.S. Open, you're gaining on the field.
The NBC "tower" last week was a little green plywood cabin--it
looked like a Monopoly piece--maybe 15 feet off the ground,
perched in the fescue between the 9th and 18th fairways,
surrounded by newly planted privet hedges. There was a
port-a-potty at the base of the booth used by some of the
players, and that's as close as most of them got to Miller all
week. Miller almost never does on-air interviews, and he's not
one to work the practice tee, chatting up the guys. He certainly
doesn't go out to dinner with them. (He doesn't go out to dinner
with anybody.) Miller does his own thing.
But he's not winging it. In his booth last week, where the walls,
ceiling and floor were covered with green fake-grass carpeting,
Miller often had his reading glasses perched on his nose and a
thick orange marker in his left hand to highlight some
statistical data that caught his eye. Hour after hour during
these holy days of golf, he had Dan Hicks, the lead announcer,
sitting to his left and David Fay, the USGA executive director,
sitting beside his right arm, which was out of commission last
week because of a muscle pull. There were only four or five other
people in the booth, all very still, and the tone was serious.
Miller is a devout Mormon, though that seldom comes through on
TV, except for his frequent complimentary remarks about Stewart
Cink, Bernhard Langer and Scott Simpson, who are also devout
Christians. Physically, he's become a different man since he
stopped playing, sort of puffy and stiff, but he still has that
same everything's-cool tone he's always had. Cool is one of the
words he uses best. Last week he said Shinnecock's Stanford White
clubhouse, all shingly and timeworn, was "pretty cool." It made
you look at the building in a whole new way.
Fay said last week that Miller was a significant factor in the
USGA's decision to sign on with NBC nine years ago. Fay feels
that Miller lives mostly in a cocoon of golf and that has
something to do with why his commentary is so original. He's not
bogged down by what the rest of the world is thinking or doing.
At his first Open, Miller was talking about some of the other
great courses on the East End of Long Island. "On the air Johnny
says, 'They've got some ballbusters out here,'" Fay recalls,
chuckling at the memory. Fay knew that Miller meant they were
courses that will bust your golf ball. Miller's life is
golfcentric. Tommy Roy, the executive producer for NBC Sports,
says Miller not only has the best eye among golf commentators but
also the best ear. He routinely hears off-center shots and
predicts where the ball is going before the camera gets there. He
loves to predict stuff. On Saturday the wind starting blowing
hard, by Hicks's observation, at 1:57 p.m.
Last week Brandel Chamblee, now an analyst for the Golf Channel,
was working his first U.S. Open since retiring as a player.
"Scott Verplank told me, 'Whatever you do, don't be like Johnny
Miller,'" Chamblee said. "I'm thinking, Are you kidding me? You'd
love to be like Johnny Miller. One year at Bay Hill, I was near
the lead on Sunday, and I finished sixth. My father calls all
upset and says, 'Johnny Miller was very critical of you on TV. He
said you were puking your guts out.' But I was puking my guts
out. Johnny can be caustic at times, but so what? He's summing up
what's going on, he's painting a picture, he's teaching. He says
something, and he gets you thinking about it. Isn't that what you
Early on Sunday afternoon Miller made it clear that the course
wasn't playing to his liking. The wind was blowing so hard that
the greens had no moisture and, in places, could not hold a
well-placed shot or even a well-placed putt. Miller likes U.S.
Opens to play to his old strengths: driving it long and straight
and hitting irons very precise distances. He'd rather see more
rough and slower greens. Early in the final-round broadcast Fred
Ridley, the president of the USGA, was seated between Hicks and
Miller. They were all shoulder to shoulder, all cozy. Miller was
at Shinnecock Hills last week, in a manner of speaking, as a
guest of the USGA. He told Ridley about how hard the wind blew
all Saturday night right through Sunday morning and the havoc it
wrought. He said, "You guys got caught by surprise." It wasn't a
question, and it wasn't the old gent, smooth-talker thing. Do you
think Miller cared? Not one bit.
"When I hit that shot, Johnny said, 'It's the shot of his life,'"
Pavin says of his famous four-wood in '95. "HE WAS RIGHT."
"Scott Verplank told me, 'Whatever you do, don't be like Johnny
Miller,'" said Chamblee. "I'M THINKING, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?"