There are two classes of golf announcers: Johnny Miller and everybody else. This isn’t a knock on all the other guys, merely recognition that Johnny, across a quarter century with NBC, reinvented the medium with his insight, candor and gallows humor. It’s been hard for me to care about all the machinations of the USGA’s new TV deal with Fox, but I’m genuinely bummed that this will be Johnny’s last U.S. Open.
The purpose of our national championship is to reveal weakness, and Johnny has been the perfect tour guide through the players’ collective psyches. Before he came along, golf commentary always skewed toward cloying, but Johnny introduced pathos to the telecast. He punctured the myth that the players were heroic gladiators in pleated pants; in Johnny’s world, every swing is a train wreck waiting to happen, every missed putt a kind of MRI of the soul. Whenever calamity strikes on Sunday afternoons, Johnny is likely to blurt out, “That’s nerves.” Maybe, maybe not, but he always works dark, and through the years plenty of players have chafed at his pessimistic worldview.
But they should have been thanking Johnny all along—he was helping them by illuminating to the viewer the exquisite torture of tournament golf. Johnny wasn’t a critic, he was a serial empathizer.
During his Hall of Fame playing career Johnny was often visited by demons. He has admitted that throughout his historic final-round 63 to win the 1973 Open at Oakmont, his only swing thought was Don’t shank because he was still haunted by a hosel-rocket late in the Crosby Clambake a year earlier.
This brings us to one of the guilty pleasures of having Johnny announce the Open: waiting for his references to his otherworldly round. Among a subset of my friends, a popular drinking game while watching the telecast is to pound a beer every time Johnny says Oakmont. It’s a miracle none of them have died from alcohol poisoning.
Johnny often seems like a kid in the front row of a classroom frantically waving his hand, eager to show how smart he is. When a player faces a straightforward pitch, Johnny likes to say, “He can chip this in,” so if the player does, our man in the booth looks like a sage. Of course, 98% of the time the guy doesn’t chip it in.
But we forgive Johnny his indulgences because he has made us much smarter fans. He is an obsessive preparer. During tournament weeks he spends as much time on the putting surfaces as any caddie, searching for his beloved fall line, a skiing term that reveals the pitch of the green and thus the break of any given putt. He is an ace illuminator of swing flaws and course management blunders, and he offers pleasing get-off-my-lawn critiques of player comportment. When Jim Furyk went low at the 2008 BMW Championship, Johnny bitingly described the round as the “first time in history someone’s shot 62 and never smiled.”
Certainly, Johnny’s style isn’t for everybody. If Jim Nantz’s dulcet tones evoke a kindly grandfather and David Feherty is the out-of-town cousin who makes you laugh so hard that Coca-Cola is streaming out of your nose, Johnny is the cranky old uncle who is likely to break up a dinner party with his blunt observations. He has always been such an alpha male, he can have a negative effect on the coverage as a whole; the most common phrase on most NBC telecasts is, “I agree, Johnny.”
But golf, and especially the U.S. Open, won’t be the same without him. Miller is under contract with NBC through 2015, and it’s a no-brainer to have him welcome the sport back to the Olympics in ’16, but Pinehurst next week is the beginning of the long goodbye. At any given tournament Johnny is as big a star as any of the competitors, but this time around he will be at the center of the story all week long. You get the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way.