Change of Course

Andy Miller made the cut at the 2002 U.S. Open, but his deep commitment to the Mormon faith means, at 27, he may never play another round as a pro golfer
June 13, 2005

The American missionary and his Mexican counterpart begin the day as they always do, by singing a hymn in Spanish under the bare lightbulb. They are dressed alike, in dark pants, white short-sleeved shirts and ties. They sing softly, amateurishly--no one will confuse them with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--but if angels are judging, the missionaries will hold their own. Now, seated in molded plastic chairs, the two men open their Bibles and read to each other. It's warm and sticky in the tiny room. Outside a light rain patters on the leaves of a mango tree and drips on bare earth. Old tires and cases of dusty Coca-Cola bottles are stacked outside the window; the doorway offers a view of a courtyard littered with machine parts, firewood, piles of gravel and a children's swing set. ¶ Their reading done, the missionaries kneel on the concrete floor to pray. A dog barks in the distance. A rooster crows. ¶ It's a long way from Pinehurst, N.C.

Each missionary wears a plastic badge on his shirt pocket identifying him as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Miller, the fair-haired American, is also marked by a long scar on the side of his left hand, which he acquired a few years ago when he pounded a padded wall in frustration during a pickup basketball game. Miller's other badge--the bronze belt clip he once wore as a member of the PGA Tour--sits in a box at his parents' house in Napa, Calif.

He remembers an exchange from the days when he wore the latter badge. It took place a couple of years ago at the Buick Classic. As Elder Miller tells the story, he was walking between the ropes with his caddie at Westchester Country Club when a tournament volunteer said, "How are you doing, sir?" The comment made Miller uncomfortable because the volunteer, a man who appeared to be in his 70s, had to be more experienced and wiser than he, a man in his mid-20s. "He called me sir," Elder Miller recalls, "only because I could put a ball in a hole with a little skill."

More recently, Elder Miller was walking with Elder Duarte, his Mexican associate, along the outskirts of Ciudad Valles when a young Mexican called out, "How's it goin', joven?"--a cheeky salutation, the equivalent of, "How's it going, young man?"

"This guy's younger than I am," Elder Miller says, "but because I have the name of Jesus Christ on my badge, I get treated worse than I did when I was putting a ball in a hole." He scratches his arm. "It's interesting to see the values we put on people."

Each missionary carries an agenda diaria del misionero, a small calendar book. There are two columns on a page, one for appointments and one for a backup plan if no one is home. In his diaria Elder Miller writes down the address and phone number, if any, of everyone he talks to. "That's why it looks so old," he says, riffling the dog-eared pages. "You sweat into your pocket, you really beat it up." He's a zone leader, so Elder Miller also maintains an Area Book, a loose-leaf binder that chronicles baptisms, lessons and all the other stages of recruitment for every contact in his region. "We don't just walk around on the streets without purpose. We're very organized."

Mormon missionaries work in pairs. Each pair is called a companionship, and companions are required to stay within each other's range of vision or voice at all times. This is partly for security--"We walk in some neighborhoods that aren't that safe at night," he says--and partly to provide "witness." Elders Miller and Duarte share a bedroom no bigger than a walk-in closet in a modern American home. Elder Duarte, who has the bangs and guileless look of a grade-schooler, is a 24-year-old accountant from the state of Morelos. Speaking in Spanish, he describes Elder Miller as "very humble and completely focused on the work. He's a serious person. He does not break the rules."

People had a similar view of the young American when he was known as Andy Miller, aspiring golfer and one of six children of former U.S. and British Open champion Johnny Miller. For example: At the first stage of the 2001 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, where Andy seemed certain to advance to the next stage, he missed a putt and banged his putter on his foot in frustration. After tapping in, he asked his playing partners and a rules official to examine the club, which looked fractionally twisted to his eye. They saw nothing, but Miller says, "I knew." Since hitting a shot with an altered club is prohibited under the Rules of Golf, Miller disqualified himself and walked off the course. "Of all the Miller kids, I think he's the most like his dad," says swing coach Rob Stanger, a family friend. "Andy does what he feels in his heart and doesn't care what the world thinks."

Recalling the bent-putter episode, Miller, 27, admits that he was inconsolable at the time. But now it is his view that the "humblings" of his premissionary life--whether minor (bogeying two of the last three holes to miss qualifying for the U.S. Open on three occasions) or major (breaking up with the woman he was engaged to marry)--were messages from God. "Sometimes a window opens and your perspective widens," he says, preparing to hit the streets with his companion. "Dad once told me about winning the U.S. Open. A couple of days after he won, he asked, 'Is that it? Is that all there is?'"

Miller's eyebrows go up, the question hanging in the humid air. "I know we have a purpose on this earth, but what is it? To earn more money? To win all the golf trophies?" He opens his Bible and turns the pages, revealing dozens of passages highlighted in pink.

He looks up. "What are we doing here if we're not preparing for eternity?"

Ciudad Valles sits atop a mountain ridge in the Huasteca, a region of rain forests, waterfalls and stone quarries in east central Mexico. The bustling city center, with its shops, banks and brick-paved plaza, resembles a small town in the U.S., circa 1960. On Mondays, their day off, a dozen Mormon missionaries walk or bus in to buy groceries at the Arteli Supermercado, carrying their purchases away in orange plastic bags. Miller and Duarte invariably spend an additional hour at a tiny Internet café in an alley off Avenida Hidalgo, where for 10 pesos they can sit at a computer and exchange e-mails with family and friends on mldsmail.net, a church-run site. Missionaries are not supposed to visit other websites, and they can call home only twice a year--on Christmas Day and Mother's Day.

From Tuesday through Saturday the missionaries do what missionaries do: walk and teach, walk and teach. "I'm used to walking," Miller says, "but this is like walking 36 holes a day. I've lost 10 pounds, at least." The area he works with Duarte is the north side of town, from the railroad tracks up to the rocky heights above the tree line. Few of the streets are paved. On a typical hot day the missionaries raise a plume of dust behind them. When it rains, their thick-soled shoes cake with mud.

On this morning in May the ground is muddy. A misty rain falls as the two missionaries exit through the iron gate at their quarters and set out at a brisk clip. Their first appointment is a few blocks away on Avenida México, a paved street. Finding the house, they knock on the door and wait patiently, knowing within seconds that no one will answer. (Above them, on a second-story window grill, hangs a poster of Pope John Paul II.) Miller makes a notation in his diary. The two men then walk down the street, trying to strike up a conversation with anyone they meet. They chat with a mother holding a squirming child, but that visit is short. Farther down the street they engage a middle-aged woman over a back fence and find her willing to be visited at her home in a village some five miles outside Ciudad Valles. "She likes to listen to missionaries," Miller explains.

In that respect the woman is exceptional. Many Mexicans, finding missionaries at their door, either express their allegiance to Catholicism or close the door with awkward apologies. A few get ugly, barking insults or making threatening gestures. "The first four or five months were unbelievably difficult," Miller says as he crosses a trash-strewn creek. "It was 110 degrees every day, so the minute you left the house you were drenched. My Spanish was poor, I couldn't understand much, and nobody wanted to listen to us. I remember waking one morning thinking, How am I going to do this for another year and a half?"

To a devout Mormon, such questions are never rhetorical. Miller says he knelt in prayer ("Lord, please help me to get through this") and then opened the Book of Mormon. He quickly found a passage about missionaries in the wilderness, sick with despair and wanting to go home. "It was a very specific answer," he says. "When I read that, I can honestly say I was comforted. All my doubt left me."

All doubt? Really?

He nods. "I think in 15 months I've learned more about life and people than I did in my previous 25 years. I've never once said, 'I wish I was back on the PGA Tour.'"

Two golf clubs, flea-market irons, stand in the kitchen corner. They came with the house, but their rusty faces testify to Elder Miller's transformation from pro athlete to missionary. In the next room a handwritten entry on a desk calendar is even more indicative: St. Augustine was important in developing the idea of a God without a body or passions. In a revelation before he died, he learned that all his ideas were wrong.

Asked if he owed his presence in Mexico to a similar epiphany, Miller sits motionless, as if poised between competing explanations. "In no way am I saying I was a bad person," he finally says, "but I was full of pride. I wanted to achieve my own goals." To that end he followed his famous father's footsteps and enrolled at church-sponsored BYU in Provo, Utah, where he became a four-time All-America golfer. A mop-haired clone of his father, Andy shared an apartment in college with two of his brothers, Scott and Todd. Collectively, the Miller boys impressed people as frisky, hardworking and gleefully committed to being the best, whether at golf, soccer, darts, Donkey Kong ... anything that separated champions from also-rans. "I've never seen kids burn with competitiveness like that," BYU golf coach Bruce Brockbank told BYU Magazine. "One of the first comments Andy made to me was, 'I want to win tournaments.'"

Of the three brothers, Andy seemed the least moved to serve a two-year mission, as Mormon men are encouraged to do between the ages of 19 and 26. Scott, who signed up first, went to Cincinnati and Louisville; Todd, the youngest, served his two years in Santiago, Chile. Andy, meanwhile, turned pro after graduation, in 2000. In 2002 he made the cut at the U.S. Open, finishing 62nd at Bethpage; won a Nationwide tour event; and earned his PGA Tour card at Q school at the end of the year. In his one season on Tour, however, Miller made only 13 cuts in 25 starts, and his $134,930 in earnings put him 191st on the money list, which meant he would have to go through qualifying again or return to the Nationwide tour in '04. Instead, he surprised his peers--not to mention his family--by turning his back on golf and giving himself to his church.

The question is ... why?

Miller's first impulse, inasmuch as he has a Bible in his hands, is to explain himself in the language of the prophets. "I felt I'd been humbled several times," he says, a sheen of sweat on his forehead. "I'd gone through a period of repentance for things that I had done in my life. I was answered through the Holy Ghost, who told me I was forgiven."

And therefore...?

"When Christ was serving on earth, he wanted everyone to follow his example. When I realized my debt, the atoning sacrifice he made for me, I felt the desire to serve him. I knew there was nothing more important."

It is only later, and only with some prodding, that Miller allows that golf might still own a sliver of his soul. "They said in college," he says with a smile, "that I liked to hit it out of the weeds, that I'd drive it crooked on purpose so I could hit it out of the cactus. And when I had 250 yards over water, I always wanted to pull out my five-wood or my two-iron." That, he admits, was rarely the smart play. "But playing safe is not as much fun."

Could a religious calling be like that? Could a mission to Mexico be the spiritual equivalent of the Tin Cup shot over water to win the U.S. Open?

Miller doesn't take the bait. "I'm very grateful to the game of golf," he says. "It teaches you about patience, how to control your mind, how to handle yourself in front of hundreds or thousands of people, how to be respectful of others. It's one of the few sports where integrity is encouraged." He looks down at the badge on his shirt pocket, then looks up again. "But golf is not my religion. It is a game."

I've always regretted that I never went on a mission," says Miller's father, Johnny, NBC's lead golf analyst and the voice of the U.S. Open. "In my time a mission lasted 2 1/2 years, and you didn't volunteer, a bishop called you. My mother convinced the bishop that my golf would go to pot if I served, so I never got the call." Instead, Johnny has fulfilled his church obligations by giving hundreds of sacramental talks and by, as he puts it, "getting the word out that Mormons aren't too weird." Asked about Andy's decision to undertake a mission at a critical point in his golf career, Johnny says, "I'm proud of him. To give up everything you get on Tour--free sunglasses, free shoes, free meals, free everything--takes a lot of character. But he did it for the right reasons. There was no pressure from us or anybody else."

Neither will there be pressure, Johnny says, for his son to return to tournament golf when his mission ends early next year. That will depend on how Andy decides to handle the Sabbath. Many Mormons honor the Biblical commandment to not work on Sunday--the day on which virtually all professional golf tournaments conclude. "It was always one of my goals," says Johnny, "to lead a tournament by six strokes on Saturday night, go to the press tent and say, 'I'm not going to play tomorrow. I don't play golf on Sunday.'" He had his opportunities, but he never followed through on them. Todd Miller, on the other hand, advanced to the finals of last year's Utah Amateur before conceding the title to his opponent on religious grounds.

Andy's take on the issue is succinct: "I would be a hypocrite to go back to playing golf on Sunday."

So he walks and teaches, walks and sweats, walks and prays, walks until his feet burn and his head aches. "Christ said the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," he says with a chuckle, dropping into his chair during a late-afternoon break. "My spirit is very willing, but my flesh fights it every day. It's hard to start walking again when it's 100 degrees. But you do it because...." He pauses, groping for the right words. "Because somebody's life is going to change."

Before long it's time to go out again, and Elder Duarte holds the screen door open for Elder Miller, who sees that the sun has broken through the clouds, flooding the courtyard. The mud will soon dry, the dust will rise again. There are no lawns in Ciudad Valles.

"Every once in a while," the American missionary says, "we walk through a field where goats have eaten it down to fairway height, and I feel like I'm on a golf course again. I do miss that. I always enjoyed just walking on the course, feeling the ground under my feet. A great example is Pebble Beach. That's a place where, even if you've just blown one in the ocean, you can look out on the water and have a sense of peace."

He smiles. "It's a little bit of heaven, I guess you could say." ■

"Andy does what he feels in his heart and doesn't care what the world thinks," says Stanger, a Miller family friend.

Miller's take on honoring the Sabbath is succinct: "I would be a hypocrite to go back to playing golf on Sunday."

"I think in 15 months I've learned more about life and people than I did in my previous 25 years."

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICH GRUELING Miller (left, with Duarte) says he feels as if he is "walking 36 holes a day. I've lost 10 pounds, at least." COLOR PHOTOERIC RISBERG/AP

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
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