Column: Johnny Miller talks like most golf fans think
The comment was vintage Johnny Miller, raw enough to cause most television producers to wince.
Miller was in the NBC Sports booth at Doral in 2004 when he watched Craig Parry hit another beautiful shot to the green. Miller said what he saw. That was his job.
He just didn’t say it like other golf analysts.
“The last time you see that swing is in a pro-am with a guy who’s about a 15-handicap,” Miller said. “It’s just over the top, cups it at the bottom and hits it unbelievably good. It doesn’t look … if Ben Hogan saw that, he’d puke.”
Parry got the last word, of course, holing out a 6-iron from 176 yards in a playoff to win.
Except that wasn’t the last word.
“I was in Ponte Vedra going back to the Honda Classic, and my phone is blowing up,” said Tommy Roy, the longtime golf producer at NBC. “It started percolating down in Australia, and you had radio stations demanding Johnny Miller be fired.”
Miller could make golf more fun to hear than to watch.
“He doesn’t have a filter. That’s why he’s so good,” Roy said. “What he’s thinking comes out. And 99.5 percent of the time, that was a great thing for viewers, and for me. And 0.5 percent of the time, it was a problem for our PR department and for me.
“And it was worth it.”
Roy was in Wisconsin on Monday night for his first look at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup. It will be the first Ryder Cup since 1989 that doesn’t have Miller in the booth weighing in on good shots and bad with thoughts that immediately become words.
He often entertained. He occasionally irritated. He was rarely dull.
Miller is retiring after three decades calling the shots for NBC. His last tournament will be the Phoenix Open, the perfect exit for a Hall of Fame player once known as the “Desert Fox” for winning six times in Arizona. Miller was so good for so long that it was easy for younger generations to forget about that other career he had.
And to think that was nearly his only career in golf.
Miller said he wasn’t interested when NBC first approached him, but then his wife stepped in and told him it would be nice to have a steady paycheck. Even then, it took time for him to realize his audience was in the living room, not the locker room.
He made his debut at the Bob Hope Classic in 1990 and it didn’t take long for him to leave his mark. Peter Jacobsen faced an awkward lie to the 18th green with water to the left.
“The easiest shot to choke on,” Miller said.
People thought about choking. Miller said it because that’s what he was thinking.
“What came into his brain came out of his mouth,” said Mike McCarley, president of golf for NBC Sports. “He was the first to really talk about the pressure. It’s the most important element of the game, especially in those really big moments. He was doing it at a time when others weren’t.”
It wasn’t just the word “choke.”
Phil Mickelson was getting up-and-down from everywhere at the 2010 Ryder Cup when Miller suggested that if Lefty weren’t such a good putter he’d be selling cars in San Diego. Justin Leonard and Hal Sutton were losing a fourballs match at the 1999 Ryder Cup when Miller blurted out, “My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television.”
During the 2008 U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines that Tiger Woods won in 19 holes over Rocco Mediate, Miller suggested that guys named “Rocco” don’t get their name on the trophy, and that Mediate looked like “the guy who cleans Tiger’s swimming pool.”
It wasn’t all bad.
Roy, who also has produced NBA Finals and Olympics, said he wants analysts who first-guess, not second-guess. The latter is for talk radio. First-guessing means sharing instincts, and Miller had plenty of them.
Woods was playing the final hole at Newport in the 1995 U.S. Amateur when Miller said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if he knocked this thing a foot from the hole.”
And that’s just what Woods did .
McCarley remembers how retired NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol used to worry whenever Miller called because he thought it was about retirement. McCarley soon inherited that feeling.
“Every time I’d see Johnny’s number pop up on my cellphone, my heart would skip a beat,” McCarley said. “Two years ago, he made that call I had been dreading.”
McCarley kept him working a slightly reduced schedule, but no longer. Miller is 71 and has been on the road for 50 years. His 24th grandchild was born on Sunday. He wants to teach them fly fishing in Utah, perhaps even a little golf.
Miller wasn’t sure he would last a week when he started. He never imagined going nearly 30 years.
He leaves behind a style all his own.
Most loved it. Some didn’t. But everyone listened, and that might be his legacy in the broadcast booth. Roy said what he has heard from viewers he knows is that 70 percent really like Miller, and 30 percent really don’t.
“But they all have an opinion,” he said.