GOLF Magazine Interview: Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller
Bill Frakes/SI
Johnny Miller

This interview originally appeared in the March, 1982 issue of GOLF Magazine.

Johnny Miller, his blonde hair tousled by the breeze, his shirt collar characteristically turned up, forced the club back to the top and let it go. The ball shot off the clubface, traveling straight and long. "Not bad for an old hacker," he said with air of self-derision. A nervous little laugh followed.

He flubbed the next shot, hooked another, then pushed a few. He shook his head and smiled that unhappy smile, that thing that fools are made of, and he bled internally. It was on the practice tee at Sawgrass in March of 1978, and Miller was preparing to play in the Tournament Players Championship, although he knew he was not considered a factor.

In fact, at that time, Johnny Miller was all but dead on the tournament circuit, on his way to the 111th spot on the Tour's money list—and oblivion. Possibly never before in the annals of sport had an athlete ascended as quickly or fallen as dramatically after such a brief span in the limelight.

Over six years (1971-1976) Miller had won 17 Tour events, two major championships, the U.S. and British Opens, and set the golf world agog with the numbers he was recording. Miller, more than anyone else, made the eight- and nine-under-par rounds seem almost commonplace. When he was hot, he made the other players appear to be nothing more than a laundry list of finishers. But by 1978, his talents had deserted him. His game had eroded and dissolved into posterity. A giant laid to rest... Micky Mantle striking out a record 111 times, Willie Mays unable to go from first to third on a long single, O.J. Simpson unable to find the hole in the line.

Today, two years after Miller's return from the dead with three Tour victories and close to $350,000 in earnings during that span, Miller reflects somewhat lightly on his predicament. "I hear all these things about Johnny's back and isn't it nice, and I sure appreciate it. I know I have the respect of the other players out here, maybe even more so now than before. But things are different. I have a different game, a different swing, a different mental attitude. You can't turn the clock back," he says almost wistfully.

And Miller himself believes that he is a ghost of the player who won eight times in 1974, the man who beat down the stick and found it hard to believe he wasn't holing out from 150 yards in.

"I am hitting the ball pretty well now," he says, always with the disclaimer, "but it's different. When I was at my peak, I would go into streaks where I felt like it was almost magic, that I could knock down the pin from anywhere with my irons. I remember when I won at Tucson by nine shots in 1975, I would say the average iron shot I hit that week was no more than two feet off line. It was unbelievable. I had a stretch there for a few years where I played some golf that bordered on the Twilight Zone. I'm not saying that I did it for a very long period of time, but even so during that span I played some golf that I think is unequaled. I can remember that I was literally getting upset that I had to putt. I was all over the hole, hitting the pin and having the ball bounce away. I just couldn't wait to step up and hit the next shot just to see how close I could come."

Despite his performance over the past two years and his reemergence as a superstar on the Tour, Miller continues to refer to "when I was playing well back in the mid-70's." He has accepted the fact that some parts of his game have returned, is proud that he was able to meet the challenge and escape from the depths, a three-year famine without a Tour victory, and happy that his home life has not suffered substantially.

But the spark is gone, maybe the light of innocence on which greatness is kindled, for Miller is now a wiser old man at 34. His goals are perhaps too realistic, too attainable. He has survived the agony and is now almost too content with his new role as an elder statesman of some ability on the golf course. Yes, it is possible that swimming against the tide, trying to climb up the down staircase for three years has taken its toll on Miller, that he is physically and mentally exhausted, spent. It is even more likely, however that Miller, whose financial situation has never been a problem, simply isn't hungry enough to continue to dedicate himself to winning a few more tournaments. He doesn't savor the idea of becoming a folk hero a la Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, nor does he realistically believe that it is still possible at this stage in his life. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to conclude that this man, who has been playing and studying golf since the age of five no longer finds as much fun in the game or the circus that surrounds it on the pro level.

Miller, who is very introspective and brutally honest with himself says, "I will never again let my life get out of control as it did for those few years when I was on top. I never really wanted to be No. 1 and a big shot, have people playing up to me all the time. I wasn't comfortable with any of it. I always felt that I would rather be out fishing or home with my family than at some cocktail party with a group of VIP's."

But when someone comes along who can shoot a 63 on the sands of Oakmont in the final round of the U.S. Open, or tattoo a few 61's on the cacti of the desert, or flourish with a 30 on the azalea-ridden front nine at Augusta as Miller did in 1975, there was to be no peace.

This man, right out of Blazing Saddles, had obligations to his public, the press, his agent Ed Barner, and the firms that signed him to lucrative appearance and endorsement contracts. It was at this point that Johnny Miller, the man with the supple body and torqued spinal column almost lost himself as a person.

Then the music all but stopped, and what became news was that Miller shot 76 rather than seven under par. In every town the Tour visited, the headlines would invariably ask, "Whatever Happened to Johnny Miller?" And the true measure of Miller, the man, came to the forefront.

He never showed any bitterness. Not once, to this reporter's knowledge, did he ever refuse an interview. He accepted what he calls "the hits" from the press with a graciousness seldom exhibited by the golden boy athletes of our times, who have a bad day and turn on the press or run for the showers.

At his lowest ebb, a national magazine featured a piece on Miller entitled "The Selling of Loser," in which the author detailed Miller's earnings ability and the marketing genius of his agent.

. "That article was very poor in timing, and proved to be the straw that broke up my relationship with Barner," Miller states. "I told him beforehand I didn't want to do the interview, because it really would serve no purpose, as badly as I was playing. I had to make a decision about my game, find some direction for myself and here I was set up with all types of props looking like I was enjoying putting something over on the rest of the world."

But Miller to this day doesn't blame the publication or the writer for the dastardly overtones of the article. "I never mind it when a reporter is factual. If he said I was playing terribly, it was true. If he said I was making money with my service contracts, it was true. But I felt bad enough that I was letting those people down, those people and companies who supported me and were good to me."

Still, the nationwide graphic splash had to hurt, had to churn him up inside, when he read such things as...

"Miller is proof that Andy Warhol was only partially right when he said that everyone in our society would be famous for 15 minutes..."

"Johnny Miller is different. The extent and endurance of his earning power is completely out of proportion to his athletic achievements..."

"He is a testament to the triumph of brazen promotion over honest achievement. In many ways, he is an artificial hero. Johnny Miller, the man, was long ago swallowed up by Johnny Miller, the image."

Miller swallowed it, almost gagging, and set out to restructure his life and regain his self-respect, this time without the help of Barner. At the time he had five kids to worry about and a fine wife, who was quietly supportive. He was tempted for a while to hang it up, call it a career, try something else, rid himself of the self-doubt that penetrated every fiber of his being.

"I'm not much of a student," Miller says un hesitatingly, "but during my slump I had taken to reading the Scriptures a good bit as well as a few pieces on philosophy and life. And I remember having read a statement that went something like this: 'It's not what you accomplish in life, but what you overcome.' That haunted me more than anything else. There was the one side of me that said, 'Let's quit,' and the other side that kept asking, 'What have you overcome?' I kept thinking I have never climbed any mountains. I've worked hard and ridden the crest of the waves all these years. But it all came relatively easy. I never before experienced anything like that slump, and I refused to let it get the better of me. I couldn't give up."

So, Miller set out to get back on track, first with his family and friends, making time to spend at home in Napa, Calif., understanding and playing with his eldest son and greatest fan John Jr., who is now 11 and a fine junior golfer, Scott, 5, Andy, 3, and his girls, Kelly, 9, and Casey, 7. Todd who is now a year-old, completes the Miller family album.

Then he started working on his golf game, changing his swing to accommodate the Joe Palooka type of frame he had built by chopping trees and lifting logs in the off-season after he won the British Open in 1976. Miller, the kid with the dazzling blond hair, unassuming blue and the rawboned face, had fleshed out like a linebacker and was now wearing shirts with a size 18 collar. His muscles rippled and he was far less flexible than the slim fashion model around whom Sears had built an entire line of men's wear.

He trudged off to visit John Geersten, who had taught him as a youngster and helped him refine his game. And he subsequently made stops at Byron Nelson's lesson tee in Dallas and worked a bit with Ben Doyle. And he took the bits and pieces and tried to put the puzzle back together, acknowledging that all three helped him, if only by starting him thinking about the mechanics of his swing and what he was and was not doing.

He worked on his own schedule, remaining very understanding of a trying household situation in which his wife, Linda, was attempting to raise five children. "She was having just as hard a time at home as I was on the golf course," Miller said blatantly.

His travel was held to a minimum, and his game plan meant developing a new way of thinking as well as physical adjustments. And Miller discerned that talent just doesn't disappear.

He counseled himself, remembering that throngs of enthusiasts had written him off, "that a lot of people just enjoy seeing car wrecks," and that he found out, most importantly, that his game now lent itself toward maneuvering the ball rather than trying to hit everything straight, that he would have to attack the golf course in a different manner, that he would have to be more patient and recover the feel of the clubhead, which had inadvertently been lost due to his muscle building program.

"I knew then, in the beginning of the 1977 season, that I was in for a lot of trouble. I had lost all touch and I had always been pretty much of a feel player."

So, after a poor year in 1977, a season in which Miller says he should have known enough to go home and forget the Tour for a couple of years, he had to rededicate himself to a program that incorporated all the fundamentals. He had to stop trying to think of alternatives. "I thought of politics and possibly opening a golf camp and teaching. But then I would say to myself, 'You can't quit now, not until you've come back or at least given it a good honest run.' I did not want to quit a loser. I didn't want that more than anything else."

Ironically, amid all the smoke and self-doubt, Miller never truly believed he was washed up. "I am a survivor," he says. "I have a cunning instinct. Like when I was a kid, if I got lost in the woods, I would always be able to find my way out."

And he cites the teachings of his dad as the main reason for his individuality and creativity and ultimately his success on the golf course. "My father always said if you wanted to be the best, you would have to do a lot of things others were not willing to do. He taught me never to be a follower. If you are the instigator you will accomplish the things that you want."

When Miller looks back over the three years prior to his reemergence, symbolized by a second-place finish to Tom Watson in the World Open at Pinehurst in October of 1979, he sees another father figure, a man for whom he has the greatest respect, Jack Nicklaus.

"All during the time I was struggling, Jack was amazingly supportive. When some reporter or fan would ask him about me, he would say, 'Johnny will be back. He's too good a player not to win again.' You don't know how much help that was to me coming from the greatest player in the game."

So Nicklaus was one of the few people who was not surprised at Miller's comeback. What perplexed Miller a bit was the attitude of his peers as they cheered him on at Pinehurst. For the first time he was the underdog; he was the man who had overcome. Watson had already won 9 million times. And Miller had worked hard, paid his dues, made his credit payment to the human race. The fact that he didn't win that particular tournament is almost irrelevant. He had served notice; he was pumped up, he believed in himself again as a golfer, as a man. And Johnny Miller had only a few more steps to go to the top of the down staircase. He didn't do it with the old magic, but rather with sweat and commitment and dedication as well as with conviction.

Although Miller has accepted the fact that he has met his most recent goals and readily admits that he must establish new ones, he continues to look back on his performances of the early '70s as a barometer. "If they had the Tour stats back in those days, it would have been embarrassing," he claims stoically as he considered his relative status. "I am not going to be No. 1 and I don't deserve to be; I don't play enough, or practice enough, and I am just thrilled to death that I was able to win two tournaments this year and another last season. That's plenty. Golf is not everything to me the way it is to some players. My family and my relationship with my children, which now is strong, are far more significant.

What Miller doesn't say is that he was leading the Tour stats in greens in regulation and scoring in 1981 until he tore a rotator cuff just before the U.S. Open, and that even though the injury hampered his play, he still managed to finish among the leaders in both categories. Yes, it was more than just a mild comeback these last two years. It was a resounding triumph, a Rocky-type run "Up the Down Staircase." Miller has overcome, a true accomplishment, and maybe there is a bit of that magic left.

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