Johnny Miller NBC Commentator Profile

May 11, 2008

This article originally appeared in a previous issue of Golf Magazine.

The door to the booth cracks open, letting in a slice of sunlight. A man squeezes in, carrying a brown grocery sack. He puts the sack on a table, just out of reach of Johnny Miller, NBC’s boyish-at-59 golf analyst. Miller glances at the sack, but his eyes return to a flat-panel monitor, which has Tour player Chad Campbell rolling a 24-foot putt down a slope, past the hole and right off the green. “Didn’t read it right and hit it the wrong speed,” Miller says into a microphone. “Besides that, it was wonderful.”

A commercial break gives Miller and his announcer partner Dan Hicks the opportunity to explore the sack. Miller tosses aside some Twizzlers and rummages through bags of pretzels and chips until he finds what he is looking for: a bag of Hershey’s chocolate miniatures. Ripping open the bag, Miller dumps the chocolates on the table and starts sorting. The dark chocolate bars wind up in a little pile by his microphone. The milk chocolate, Mr. Goodbar and Krackle bars go back in the bag.

“How many tournaments is Faldo doing this year?” Miller says.

“4,720,” says Hicks, returning to his chair. Miller snorts. Englishman Nick Faldo, the 49-year-old CBS and Golf Channel analyst, is Miller’s only competition in the network golf-gab game. And since the Golf Channel now carries the weekday rounds and some weekend play of every PGA Tour event, Miller sometimes has to slip into a chair still warm from Faldo’s posterior. That’s the case today at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, where Faldo and Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman handed off to Miller and Hicks at noon.

“Johnny, how ya’ doin’, sport?” Faldo says during the changeover, stripping to his waist and slipping on a sweater. “Fifty-nine, are you really? Ten more than me?”

Miller takes the needle good-naturedly, but now he is in the chair, the reigning king of commentary, and he has control of the snack bag that will be waiting for Faldo on Sunday morning. “We like each other,” Miller insists, “but we steal each other’s candy. We both like dark chocolate.”

He pops one of the little bars into his mouth and chews contentedly. “Maybe I’ll leave him one,” he says.

“Five to air,” says a woman who leans in from the shadows behind the camera. “Four …” The rest of her countdown is mute, signaled with three fingers, then two, then one.

Miller is still smiling when Hicks picks up the thread.

THE PHONE keeps ringing at Johnny Miller Enterprises in Napa, Calif. A reporter from Pittsburgh wants to talk to Johnny about the final-round 63. A cable network wants fresh audio from Johnny for a segment on the final-round 63. A mini-tour pro wants advice from Johnny on how to shoot a final-round 63. It’s Miller time — always is when the U.S. Open returns to Oakmont. It was at Oakmont in 1973 that a willowy Miller shot a tournament-record final-round 63 for the most memorable win of his Hall of Fame career. You’ll read so much about that final-round 63 between now and June 14 — how a voice in Miller’s head during warm-up said, “Open your stance way up;” how he hit 18 irons into 18 greens, most of them no more than five feet off line; how Arnold Palmer, contending for the last time in a major, spotted Miller’s name on a leaderboard and promptly folded; how Miller, coming down the stretch, stood over every iron shot thinking, “Don’t shank it” — that you may end up remembering it better than he does.

The irony is that Miller is a star now, in the 21st century. Millions of his fans have never seen him hit a shot, and if you tell them that he was the first pro to shoot really low scores at Tour events, they’ll shrug and turn up the volume on their iPods. Viewers don’t love or hate Miller for his record. They love or hate him for saying “Verplunk!” when Scott Verplank hits one in the water at the 2006 Ryder Cup … for flaming Phil Mickelson from 72nd tee to 72nd green during last year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot … for suggesting that Ben Hogan, if forced to look at the ungainly swing of Australia’s Craig Parry, “would have puked.”

So with Miller returning to Oakmont for the third time as an announcer, perhaps it’s time to re-examine his legacy as a gabber, to peer into the past to find out how he developed his practiced bluntness, caustic wit, and preternatural ability to predict the outcome of a shot based solely on how it sounds through his headphones. Miller will tell you he already had two of those gifts in 1969, when he joined the Tour, a mop-topped bag of bones out of Brigham Young University. He remembers being on the practice range at one of his first Tour events when the great Lee Trevino stepped up to watch and then, as SuperMex was wont to do, heckle. “Lee thought I was this passive lamb,” Miller says, smiling at the memory. “But I gave it right back to him. I seemed quiet on the surface, but if you got into it with me, I could hold my own.”

Earlier, then. Johnny’s businessman father, Larry Miller, in addition to being a low-handicap golfer, was an artist and songwriter. “He wrote both the melody and the lyrics,” Miller recalls, “and he’d say amazing things. He was a total one-off thinker.”

That’s relevant, Miller says, because “my goal on the air is to say things you don’t expect me to say.”

But if you press him, Miller will say his on-air persona dates to the 1960s, his teen years, when fate (and a certain skill with golf clubs) delivered him to the rarefied precincts of San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Miller, at 14, was Olympic’s first “merit member” — the club’s term for talented juniors given access to its courses and practice facilities — and the top player on its junior golf team. “We just had a great group of guys,” he says, “and we all had this Animal House mentality.”

ANYONE who has been to the Olympic Club will raise a skeptical eyebrow at the frat-house reference. The clubhouse, on a landscaped escarpment overlooking the 18th green, is an Italianate pastiche of stucco walls, iron chandeliers and Oriental carpets, a place where a Medici might catch a few winks between poisonings. It’s hard to imagine a foursome of 16-year-olds hitting bump-and-run shots down the hall while a jittery lookout covers the stairs to the porte cochere.

“The guy on the stairs was the flagger,” Ron O’Connor says, giving a visitor a tour of the clubhouse. “He’d wave his arm if the coast was clear.”

O’Connor, a real estate broker and longtime Olympic Club member, was the club’s second-best junior golfer in Miller’s day. (His friends call him “Rocket” — short for “RocketMan,” a nickname Miller gave him.) The team captain, Steve Gregoire, was number four. More importantly, he was the son of the club member who put Miller up for membership.

Both boys caddied at the club, and Miller frequently looped for Leon Gregoire.

“My dad played with a bunch of guys who played five or six days a week, and they gambled pretty heavily,” says Steve, who now owns an interior landscaping company. “Those guys would rib each other viciously, and we all picked up on it. When we played, it was difficult to tee off on the first hole because the needle was going back and forth.” Putting was no cakewalk, either — not when Rocket Man assured you the line was a ball outside the hole, and Miller said, “Yeah, left edge,” and you said, “Left edge? Or outside the hole?” and Rocket Man said, “Now that I look at it, it’s dead straight.”

“It toughened us up,” Gregoire says with a smile. “Made us better.”

Miller agrees. “The needling made me quick,” he says, leaning on a rail outside the announcers’ booth. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m quick. I’ve immediately got something to say.”

The ribbing desensitized Miller, too; it led him to assume that others shared his ability to handle criticism. “I’m brutally honest, to a fault, and some players don’t like that.” Oddly enough, it’s the older pros — the guys Miller thinks should be thickskinned — who squawk the most when he politely points out that they’re choking dogs. “The young players grew up listening to Johnny Miller, they’ve got that X Games mentality,” Miller says. “They think I’m out there, sort of with it — not the old fuddyduddy, careful announcer.”

In any event, Miller insists that his on-air jibes are not meant to sting: “When Mickelson has hit only one fairway in 13 holes, I’m like his caddie. I’m thinking, ‘Don’t hit the driver, Phil! Don’t try to hit a low slice around the tree!’ I’m not trying to rip him. I’m using ESP. I’m trying to help him.” And when he spots another player’s swing flaw — say, a tendency to squat in the takeaway and then drive the left shoulder up through impact a la Tiger Woods — is Miller just tweeting his coach’s whistle?

He nods. “I’m trying to give the pro a free lesson. I’m hoping he’ll watch it that night and say, ‘Johnny’s right, that’s exactly what I’m doing wrong.'” His straight face begins to crack. “But that doesn’t go over too well, I’ve found.”

After all, who wants advice from a 16-year-old?

THE SECOND hole of the Olympic Club’s “Animal House” course is an 85-yard par 7. You tee off from an alcove in the men’s locker room and chip through a door and up some steps to a landing, where a wellplayed ricochet off the wall kicks your ball outside and across the sidewalk to a flower bed. That leaves you a delicate approach of 45 yards up a clubhouse hugging, cliff-edge sidewalk to the practice putting green.

Miller honed his short game on this hole. He also practiced at the nearby Harding Park municipal course, where he played the flag game. The rules, set down by his father, were simple: Hit your ball within the length of the flagstick, roughly seven feet, on all 18 greens. Miller’s friends remember how dejected Johnny would get when his string of flags ended — usually around the 10th hole.

“Johnny’s dad was his first golf coach,” Gregoire says, “and as good a teacher as he was about the swing, he was twice that good between the ears.”

It was Larry Miller’s idea to turn the basement of his house on Ocean Avenue into a golf academy for Johnny. The basement had mirrors, mats, nets and instruction books by the likes of Ben Hogan and Cary Middlecoff. The basement also had a vibe — a very positive vibe, because Larry Miller believed you built a champion through encouragement and support, not bullying.

“His dad always called him Champ,” Gregoire recalls. “There was never a negative word. If Johnny hit a bad shot, his dad would praise his setup or something. By the time he was 12, Johnny believed hook, line and sinker that he was going to be a champion.”

By the time he was 17, Miller was a champion, winner of the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur in Eugene, Ore.

“My dad was my turbocharger,” Miller says. “That’s what gave me the edge, his positive thinking and affirmation ofgreatness.” The elder Miller also bequeathed his iconoclasm — the quality that makes established swing gurus puffup with rage when Miller claims, for instance, that he can wait until the moment of impact to put draw or fade spin on the ball. “Dad would give me crazy ideas,” Miller says, “things that didn’t work, but stuff I could learn from. I carried a left-handed 5-iron. I hit balls out of iceplant and up against cactus, the craziest stuff you could imagine. So when I entered a tournament, it was a foregone conclusion I was going to win.”

Miller’s friends are quick to point out that he had great parents, plural, which made the Miller home a haven for spirited kids with time to kill. “Mrs. Miller was an extraordinary cook,” O’Connor recalls. “She’d bake blackberry and apple pies, and she’d say, ‘If you can get here in 15 minutes, you can have a quarter of the pie.'” He shuts his eyes and smiles. “Her crust was killer crust.”

ANOTHER kitchen scene. The year is 1993, and Johnny’s wife Linda is fixing breakfast at the Miller’s hilltop hacienda in Napa, Calif. “Mom, were you a hippie?” asks her 19-year-old daughter, Casie.

Linda, who has raised her six children without the benefit of liquor, tobacco, coffee, tea, soft drinks or profanity, is surprised by the question. “I was kind of straight back then,” Linda replies.

“I would have gone to Woodstock,” Casie says.

“Yeah, she would have,” Linda says later.

“She’s more like her father. John is a gypsy and a horse trader.”

Time has validated Linda’s assessment of her husband, whose blend of Mormon devotion, bluntness and sass confounded observers in the ’70s. Implicit in Casie’s question, though, was the understanding that people — even parents — are influenced by historical forces, that today’s Rush Limbaugh might be yesterday’s Abbie Hoffman. There is a scene in All the President’s Men where Robert Redford, as Bob Woodward, reads a note from Deep Throat while a radio drones: “In sports, in Muirfield, Scotland, Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin share the lead in the British Open golf tournament, both at 141. Johnny Miller is…”

And the scene shifts. We never learn what Johnny Miller is.

Today, his colleagues at NBC simply accept that Miller has his enigmatic side, that he will enliven their lives for three or four days and then disappear. “I’ve worked with the guy for 15 or 16 years, and I’ve probably had dinner with him twice,” says course reporter Roger Maltbie, an unabashed Miller fan. Course reporter Gary Koch remembers the last time he played golf with Miller — the week of the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge — but adds, “Most of the time he doesn’t even have his clubs with him.”

Miller is the favorite uncle who brings toys but doesn’t spend the night.

“I’m not the chummiest guy,” he concedes. “I could hang around more, spend more time with players on the range.” It’s an anemic resolution, one he’s been making for years.

His Olympic Club pals didn’t consider Miller a loner; he was in and out of their homes all the time. “Then we had a little tournament here,” says Gregoire, alluding to the 1966 U.S. Open, won by Billy Casper. “We all signed up to caddie — except for Johnny, ’cause that silly sucker qualified.” Miller was 19 at the time, a loose-limbed sophomore from BYU, and he shook up the golf establishment by coming out of sectional qualifying to tie for eighth, low amateur by three strokes. “Johnny was upset,” Gregoire recalls. “It was his home course. He thought he should have won.”

The point is, Miller now had a new set of peers: Tour players.

“He didn’t smoke and he didn’t drink,” O’Connor reminds us, and Miller certainly had no use for those pungent cigarettes that some players and caddies fired up back at the motel. “Johnny didn’t condemn people if they had a drink, but they condemned him if he didn’t. He had a different lifestyle. He wasn’t in the group.” Miller, a committed Mormon and family man, was swimming against the tide of the ’70s.

That didn’t bother him. What bothered him, his friends say, was the sight of Linda and the children in the driveway, the littlest one crying, when he’d drive off for two or three weeks of tournament golf. As the years went by, as he racked up a eight-win season (1974) and socked away a British Open title (1976), the divide between Tour time and family time became untenable, and Miller — an unsentimental man — simply drifted off the circuit.

MILLER, carrying his blue blazer on a hanger, walks through a desert wash toward the NBC compound. The setting sun reveals traces of the pancake makeup he applied before going on the air. (“Hey, look,” Faldo had teased, “he’s covering himself in makeup!”) Miller doesn’t seem to be in a hurry.

“I’m in a really good place right now,” he says. “My family’s doing well. I feel like I’m in my prime as an announcer.” He stops and looks back toward the clunky silhouette of the announcer’s booth, a crate on stilts. “It’s one of the rarest jobs in the universe, and now there’s only two of us, two lead announcers,” Miller says. “I consider it an honor.”

This is a different Johnny Miller. Less driven. Unconflicted.

His friends see it. On a recent hunting trip, Miller sat with Gregoire in a fog-shrouded blind from dawn until afternoon, with just one dead duck between them. “Anybody who knows Johnny knows he can’t sit still more than 15 minutes,” Gregoire said afterward. “So for us to sit there in the fog with one duck for 6 hours and 45 minutes…”

Why the change? Gregoire shrugs. “He needed it. He’s been burning the candle at two ends for 40 years.” Oh, and Miller will soon turn 60, “and he’s beginning to realize there’s only so many shopping days till Christmas,” Gregoire says.

“All my friends are shocked,” Miller says, studying the sunny side of a giant saguaro cactus. “I’ve always been in a rush, trying to do everything at 85 miles an hour. I was too tight. The last two years, I’ve tried to slow down and not try to put too many things into one day.”

Is a slowed-down Miller a gentler and kinder commentator?

“Maybe,” he says. “I’ve made a resolution to not be quite as hard on the players. I don’t know if NBC will like that idea, but I’m trying to be fair.”

The catalyst for the change, he adds without irony, was CBS’s decision not to rehire Lanny Wadkins as its lead golf analyst — the rap on Wadkins was that he was bland and too protective of players’ feelings. “Lanny said when you get away from the game you forget how hard it is to hit good shots,” Miller says. Then he nods, as if he’s never heard this argument before. “I learned a good lesson from Lanny. I’ll probably try to be a little kinder.”

The cactus, looking down on Miller, is unconvinced.

So are his colleagues on the NBC golf team, which has built its old-prostalking-on-the-couch coverage around Miller’s astringent style. Says Maltbie, “We all have a filter that keeps us from cussing in front of our moms or the minister — not that Johnny would do that — but it’s a filter he doesn’t possess. If it’s in his head, it’s going to come out of his mouth.” Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, says Miller is just like television’s other JMs, John McEnroe and Joe Morgan.

“None of them has a governor,” Ebersol says. “You’re getting them just the way they are.”

Miller’s colleagues might worry if they saw him pulling back on his preparation, but he still goes out early on broadcast days to take copious notes on the course setup. Before today’s show, for instance, he drove out to the first green to see if an invisible pitch mark was really responsible for the four-foot putt Tiger Woods missed yesterday on the first playoff hole of his loss to Nick O’Hern.

“Tiger was right,” Miller said upon his return. “The grass has grown up and been mowed level, but I felt around with my fingers, and there was a crater nobody’s ever fixed. You can’t see it, but it’ll cause a ball to veer, for sure.” Asked why he had bothered to do what no other on-site journalist had — actually check Tiger’s claim — Miller shrugged. “I just thought I had to do it,” he said.

Minutes later, after taking over from Faldo, Miller used the first commercial break to inform Hicks that he’d searched for the pitch mark.

“What’d you see?”

Miller waved him off. “We’ve got to do it impromptu, on the air. I don’t want to skew your thinking.” Hicks nodded, and the two men sat quietly, lost in thought.

“Five seconds … Four …”

Three fingers, two fingers, one.