In his Golf Magazine debut, Johnny Miller dissects Phil’s flaws, Tiger’s future and why chokers choke
In a poll conducted a few years ago, Golf Magazine asked you to vote for your favorite and least favorite broadcasters. You named NBC’s Johnny Miller TV’s top golf analyst. Your least favorite? Yep. Johnny Miller. Love him or loathe him, you can’t stop listening to him. This month, the Hall of Famer and 25-time Tour winner becomes a Golf Magazine contributor. He’ll share stroke-saving tips, as well as exclusive video and audio content on our tablet editions (his first article can be found in this issue on p. 41). In an interview that took place overlooking Pebble Beach’s famed 18th hole, the man who twice became an icon—first on the course, then in the booth—was typical Johnny. Confident (“I’m better than ever in the booth”), humble (“I choked on the Augusta greens”), sincere (“My dad taught me how to be a champion”), and funny (“If I was caddying for Phil, I’d make him wear a shock collar”). Don’t go away, folks. We’ve got Johnny on the spot.
Let’s start with your childhood. You called your dad, Larry, your “turbocharger” when it came to training you to be a champion. How so?
My dad was an original thinker. He wrote poetry, songs. His side of the family had sculptors and artists. He gave me fundamentals, but he also threw out weird ideas to make me go into different rooms of knowledge. Instead of, “Open your stance,” he would say, “Take it back inside and hit an upshot fade around that tree.” He wanted me to think in ways no one else thought. He told me, “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to think differently.” We’d practice in strange ways—he’d bury a ball under the lip of the bunker, have me hit balls out of ice plant, through the trees, swing left-handed. Looking back, like most teenagers, I didn’t always appreciate it. I do now. He was a bit of a genius. He made me a champion.
You won 17 times from 1972-76, including your two majors. During that stretch, you said, “I’m not happy with a two-shot win. I want to demoralize them.” Where did that inner fire come from?
It sounds like inner fire but it was more, “I’m gonna win by a whole bunch so if my putting falls apart I’ll have a big enough lead.” I don’t trust my putting. It was a fail-safe move, spurring me on to get a 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-shot lead. When the hole opened up and I started making [putts], instead of thinking about shooting 65, I was thinking 61 or 62. My thinking was, “I better take it low today, because tomorrow that hole might look like an ant hill.”
In 1975 you told Newsweek, “Augusta is set up perfect for me... My day will come.” Your day never came. Why?
I choked a little bit on the greens. Augusta honors the great putters—guys that can read the greens, dial in the right break, and hit perfect speed. I was more of a “pop” putter; I could drive it in there, but my distance control and my nerves were suspect in majors. The guys who win at Augusta—[Ben] Crenshaw, [Jose Maria] Olazabal, George Archer—sometimes never win another major anywhere else. It’s because of their putting prowess. You have to be a great putter or have a great putting week, and I never had a great putting week at Augusta. I hit it well enough tee-to-green to win four jackets, but those greens were too tough for me, and my putting always succumbed to major championship pressure.
You didn’t need brilliant putting to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. Your Sunday 63 is still the lowest-ever final round in a major by the winner. Is it true that you told yourself in the 18th fairway, “You better not shank this, you choking dog?”
No, but right here at Pebble Beach on the 16th hole of the ’71 Bing Crosby [pro-am] I was playing against Nicklaus. I hit my drive down the right side. Then I pull-shanked it on national TV. I won 25 times after that, and never once on the last day did it not come into my head, “You’re not gonna shank it like you did in ’71.” I had to fight those demons for the rest of my career.
If putting was your Achilles’ heel, what was your greatest weapon?
My iron game. Nobody was even close to me from 5-iron to the wedge. I could dial it in straight and within one yard. In other words, if the distance was 156 [yards], I was gonna hit it 155, 156, or 157. It wasn’t, Well, I hope it goes that far. It was every time, within one yard. Sometimes I would hit it and put my fist up halfway, thank you very much. It irritated the pros. I had a different method. No matter what the distance was, I took it to a set position at the top and would dial in the clubhead speed I wanted. A lot of guys shorten the swing or choke down. But I could dial in any speed I wanted, to hit it 151, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6, -7, -8, -9. That’s a great way to teach it, though I don’t know of anyone who teaches it.
You started doing color commentary for NBC Sports in 1990. Did you feel out of your element at first?
My first event was the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and after that first day, I said, “I quit. This is not for me. I’m a golfer, not an announcer. This sucks.” I had no training. They told me to use the Telestrator in the next segment. I didn’t know how to use a Telestrator, and I didn’t know what a “segment” was! I didn’t know when to talk. I complimented the players—“Oh, I hope he hits a good shot”—which you’re not supposed to do. So I figured, I don’t need this. I’m out of here. The producer and my manager said, “You can’t quit. At least do this week.”
When did you realize you had a knack for it?
That week, we showed a clip of Mike Ditka knocking over water coolers and kicking things. I said, “It looks like Curtis Strange after a 3-putt.” Curtis hated that. He wrote a letter to [then Tour commissioner] Deane Beman saying, “I’m trying to change my image, and he killed me.” I didn’t love that I made Curtis mad, but it was entertaining.
It was also at the Hope that year that you used the dreaded C-word while Peter Jacobsen was coming down the stretch Sunday.
We were really good friends. I was his idol. Peter had a downhill lie with a 215-yard shot, water on the left, and he had to hit a high shot. I said, “This is the perfect shot to choke on.” I didn’t say he was gonna choke, but his friends told him I did. He won the tournament but didn’t talk to me for six months until he found out what I said. It was the first time anyone said “choke” on TV, and that raised a lot of attention to my new career. I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s just the way I think.
You bring up nerves and pressure more than any other analyst. Define choking.
It’s called golf. Golf is the greatest game in the world for handling pressure. It’s a slow game, and there’s a lot of time to think—a lot of memories you don’t want to pop up. Golf is about how you handle the choke factor. If you don’t think choking and handling it is important, you’re missing the point of the game and you’ll never amount to much. It’s a foe you must overcome. It’s a foe that’s wonderful to overcome. Whether it’s because the hole doesn’t suit your game, the pressure, the player you’re up against—they’re all things that if you overcome and win, man, that gives you joy. Choking sounds like a bad word, an ugly word, but choking is golf.
What’s your broadcast philosophy?
My feeling is, when the players get to the parking lot, they’re mine. They’re fresh meat. I’m there for the viewer. I want the viewer to have a clear understanding of what happened. So, if a player does something wrong, I might say, “Here’s what he did wrong, and here’s how you can keep your elbow from flying.” In my own way, I’m giving the player and the viewer a lesson. The players don’t like being the guinea pig. I’m trying to help them, but they don’t view it that way. I see it like I’m there on the practice tee, saying, “You pull-hooked it because you hung back on your right side and kicked that right elbow out at impact.” They think I’m trying to expose their faults, but I’m pulling for them. If they’re doing something under pressure that they normally don’t do, I’ll expose that to help them next time. Nobody likes having their pants pulled down on national TV, and that’s basically what I’m doing.
In the booth, you come up with memorable images. You’ve said that at the U.S. Open “pars wear little white hats.” When Phil Mickelson botched the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open, you said, “You don’t have to ride down the stretch on a white stallion. You can limp in.” Where do these turns of phrase come from?
I feel I’m different. I don’t do anything like a standard person. I got it from my dad, who was artsy. Saying things other people don’t think of is the greatest gift he gave me. If a guy hits it 12 feet right of the pin, I don’t need to say that because you just saw it. So give the viewer something he doesn’t know. Why did he hit it 12 feet right of the pin? Too many announcers state the obvious; I try to get into cause and effect and swing analysis.
You also make predictions. Sometimes you’re wrong, but sometimes you nail it.
A lot of announcers won’t go there. They’re worried about being wrong. I don’t care if I’m wrong. If I have a hunch a guy’s gonna dump it in the water because he has an into-the-grain lie, I’ll say, “There’s a good chance this is going in the water.” When Tiger played [Mike] Weir at the  Presidents Cup, I said, “There’s no way this driver’s gonna hit the fairway.” People think, “Dang, you can’t say that about Tiger Woods!” But it didn’t set up for the shot, and he hadn’t been driving it well—and he hit it in the water. Most announcers don’t take chances. I announce naturally but fearlessly because I’ve learned that mistakes aren’t so bad. I don’t mind saying, “I was wrong.”
What would you go back and un-say?
My main goal when I’m broadcasting is to keep that guy at home from dozing off. I want him to sit up and say, “Dang, what did he just say?” Maybe I was looking for a fight when I was younger. I could have bit my tongue more.
Like when you said Craig Parry’s swing “would make Ben Hogan puke”? Or at the 1999 Ryder Cup, when you joked on Saturday that a struggling Justin Leonard should watch the rest of the action on TV?
I spoke to Craig after the “make Hogan puke” comment. Same with Justin. I try to apologize in person within 24 hours. That’s my rule. When I’m wrong, I say, “I’m sorry. I crossed the line.” With the Leonard comment, it just came out wrong. He had blown a match, and he had never won a Ryder Cup match. He had no mojo going. I made that comment, and it really riled up the U.S. side. Apparently, that was the main motivation for the U.S. playing so well the next day [Team USA roared back in Sunday singles to win, with Leonard holing the decisive putt.] Howard Cosell was a bit like I am. When I retire, I hope they say, “Dang, there’s not gonna be another one like him.”
You seem to announce the way you played—take aggressive chances and let the chips fall.
In the booth, you can play it safe and down the center of the fairway. Or you can go for glory. That means you’ll be close to water hazards and O.B. stakes. I could be Joe Namby Pamby and say trite, obvious things, but growing the game is part of what I do. Viewers tell me all the time, “If you’re not announcing, I don’t even turn it on.”
What’s your finest moment as a broadcaster—the equivalent of shooting 63 at Oakmont?
Well, I try not to judge my work too much. It’s like art. It’s out there. But calling my first U.S. Open, at Shinnecock in 1995, was special. I was very emotional. When Corey Pavin hit that 4-wood and his ball landed 15 yards short of the green, I said, “He’s hit the shot of his life,” then it bounces up to five feet. Corey didn’t make the putt, but it was the shot of his life.
You turn 65 in April. Are you at the top of your game as an analyst, or have you lost some yards off the tee?
Technically, I’m better now than ever. I don’t expose everything going on in my brain. I used to have no filter between my brain and my mouth, but I now have a bit of a filter. [Laughs] NBC likes it when I’m weird. I’m not trying to be weird. I’m just weird naturally.
Who are your favorite players to call?
Tiger and Phil. Phil is unpredictable. He does crazy things. I told him, “Phil, you’re the greatest guy in the world to announce for, because you do things like at Winged Foot. Instead of hitting 3-iron off the tee and winning the U.S. Open, you hit driver to look like a hero. You do crazy stuff. That’s great for me.” He looks at me and says, “Well, that’s a weird thank-you.” If I was caddying for Phil, with some of the stuff he tries, I’d make him wear a shock collar.
Speaking of crazy, is Tiger nuts for remaking his swing again?
I think the swing Tiger had when he won the Masters in 1997 was, for his body speed and talent—that was the swing. If he had that swing now, with the equipment he has, he would outdrive Bubba [Watson] by 30 yards. He’d fly it 330. But I like a lot of what Sean Foley is working on with Tiger. He swings not nearly as hard. It’s controlled and matches his age and injuries.
Tiger’s 36. What do you predict for him in 2012 and beyond?
Tiger’s the greatest Sunday pressure player ever. I think he’ll win three or four times in 2012 and have a second career that will match Phil’s career, which is amazing. Phil’s won almost 40 times with four majors. I think Tiger will win four more majors and 30 or 40 more tournaments, which is fantastic. But for him to win five and surpass Jack? There’s a great chance he’ll win four and tie Jack [with 18 major wins], but I don’t think he’ll get that fifth. You’ve got guys like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day who say, “Hey, I can beat you.” They might rethink their bravado if Tiger starts kicking butt again, but right now Rory’s thinking, “Hey, old man, you had your day. My time is now.”
What player today most reminds you of you?
I was like a rocket. If I was going good, I could beat anybody, because I was so aggressive going at the pins, and I hit driver a lot. Most of my 25 tournament wins were by an average of three or four shots. I could blow away a field. Rory can do that now. He might be the only one who can make everyone else look like also-rans. It’s an exciting year coming up, with Rory and the Tiger factor. Half the people want the Tiger of old, and the other half hope he loses every week. That’s the perfect scenario for interest level. You’ll get some fistfights—Tiger haters vs. Tiger lovers. I’m pulling for him.
Last question, and we’re putting you on the spot. Who reached greater heights: Johnny the player or Johnny the analyst?
I did some things in golf that people still talk about today. I shot 49-under total back-to-back in Tucson and Phoenix. And I shot 63 at Oakmont. But as an analyst, I’ve had longevity. My impact will be guys like Brandel Chamblee, who are copying what I do, taking off the velvet gloves and exposing things.
So who’s better? Player or broadcaster?
[Long pause, smiles] I think it’s a tie.
This article first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The February issue is on newsstands and the tablet version is available for free for magazine subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more