PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — On Saturday, the Players was a TV event, and a good one. Paul Goydos hit what Johnny Miller, on NBC, called “the shot of his life” into the 18th green. Millions of people were watching on TV. The stands that ring the green were maybe one-third filled.
Miller was in the NBC booth to the left of the 18th fairway, seated beside his colleague Dan Hicks. Tiger Woods, of course, is not in the field, and there was no evidence that Miller was missing him. Miller, who has been doing play-by-play at the Players since 1991, loves the TPC Sawgrass course, for the exact reasons Tiger Woods does not. “A Torrey Pines, a Doral, every year those courses will identify the best players in the game,” Miller said after his four-hour stint in the booth. “At this course, you never know what’s going to happen.” Exhibit A: Craig Perks in 2002. Exhibit B: Paul Goydos, so far, this year.
The “former substitute school teacher,” as Bob Costas called him, kept knocking down putts, and Miller and Hicks were loving it. They mentioned Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson about as often as they could, knowing all the while that Goydos was the story.
It’s as interesting to watch Miller deliver his analysis as it is to listen to him. He shows virtually no emotion with a ball in the air or rolling across a green, but as soon as the ball settles to its resting place, out comes a torrent of words from the game’s greatest savant: “He got robbed!” was his response to a putt that touched all the bases but failed to drop. He still feels their pain.
Hicks was wearing an elegant dress shirt with French cuffs, along with a watch, a wrist bracelet and a wedding ring. Miller was wearing one of those shirts you can buy at Sears, with multiple buttons at the wrist. He sometimes leans way back in his reclining chair, as if he were at home on a Barcalounger. Underneath his chair was an expired bag of potato chips and a Ziplock bag filled with melting ice. He recently had knee surgery, “the exact thing that Tiger had.” He worked the telecast with his black Footjoy street shoes off.
Hicks seems much more vested in the action, scooting shots closer to the hole with his hands, waving a hotel pen with a chewed cap in the air, but every word out of him is a study in control. The two men usually have a stat man, Gil Capps, seated between them. But when Tommy Roy, the NBC golf producer, goes to a booth shot, Hicks and Miller sit so close together that their arms touch.
During one break, Miller commented on how little spin Goydos gets on his ball, and he asked Gary Koch if Goydos was using “one of those pro-am balls.” He wasn’t trying out a line. When the broadcast resumed, he returned to the theme of Goydos’s hard ball, but without the “pro-am” reference.
They were working in a green room: the walls, floors and ceiling of the booth are all covered in green plastic carpeting, like you might see at a driving range. There are a half-dozen flat-screen TVs, one of them marked as the “pay no attention cam,” but not a single clock. It’s like Las Vegas, where the casino owners don’t want the gamblers to know how much time they’re spending in the gambling halls. The difference, Hicks noted, “is that we have a window.” Which is true, a tinted window right behind them, with an unobstructed view of the 18th green. They never look through it. When the lights come on for a live shot, Miller, with his pale blue eyes, squints as if he is looking into the sun.
When Goydos was interviewed by Bob Costas, in the clubhouse, Miller laughed silently as Goydos worked the questions like a seasoned comedian out of the Bob Newhart tradition, proudly wearing his Long Beach State baseball hat. Costas asked why Goydos wears his shirts buttoned to the top on a 90-degree day — Woods does the same thing — and the 54-hole leader said he did it because “I have no shoulders.” Miller loved it.
In a commercial break, Costas asked if anybody knew the Long Beach State fight song. “Fight On, Dirt Bags,” Hicks answered cheerfully, and hummed an imaginary bar or two.
Miller’s all about the golf. At one point, Costas said of Goydos, “I have exhausted the bucket of my knowledge.”
Miller never has that problem. There will always be more shots to analyze. Late on Saturday, Garcia had a 10-footer for birdie on 17. The putt went screaming past the hole, but Miller’s face showed nothing. Sergio went over to mark it and Miller said excitedly, “That first putt was an explosion!”