By Dick Harmon
The microphone given Johnny Miller to engage the masses with his TV golf color and commentary is silent. The Heber Valley homeowner is on to other fairways.
Johnny Miller’s television commentaries were a bold clarion voice in the world of professional golf where plush country club whispers ruled until his arrival. Miller’s unique perspective – often controversial – ended with his last TV broadcast the day before Super Bowl Sunday when the 71-year old former BYU star retired from NBC Sports at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale.
His last broadcast of Saturday’s third-round play was filled with tributes, vignettes, videos of legendary calls, and a storied playing career on the PGA Tour.
Johnny used football jargon to describe golf. He was blunt, direct and honest. Some thought he was mean, but to the regular Joe who plays municipal golf or club guy hanging out with members, he spoke their language. A shank and duck hook? They understood. And that made his TV work a masterpiece, a bastion of “telling it like it is” journalism.
Miller tore up the PGA Tour back in the early 70s; it was a playing career in which he dominated as one of the world's best iron players and stepped out of the shadow of Jack Nicklaus to earn induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
But as his golf career faded, a parade that featured two major victories, 25 Tour wins and a pair of Ryder Cup victories, the former BYU golfer was an instant hit behind the microphone describing with artistic bluntness the foibles of millionaires who golf.
In his book, “I Call the Shots,” published in 2004, Miller correctly predicted how megastar Tiger Woods would struggle physically and mentally to overtake Nicklaus’ rein of wins in majors. Half a decade later, Woods, as if on cue, had personal and physical issues that derailed his talented and remarkable run as the best on the planet.
In short, Miller’s insight has been a national treasure.
It was both refreshing and fun, even if it rankled some pros when he used the words “choke” and “puke.”
Because Miller had done it as good as anyone, when he explained how a pro messed up, it carried major weight.
“I think he was very confident in all he’s done and to be honest, even if that rubbed some people the wrong way, other people loved it.” said his son Todd Miller, director of golf at BYU.
Todd was only three or four years old when his father quit playing competitive golf. He’s only seen videos of the days his father, a handsome blonde-headed athletic figure knocked approach shots stiff and raised his arms in the air to celebrate or when he shot a record 63 at Oakmont in the 1973 U.S. Open, one of the toughest courses in the world.
That Oakmont 63 is considered the best round of golf in history if you consider equipment, balls and how the game has advanced. He hit every green in regulation and came from six shots back to win, it was the first 63 ever shot in a major.
Todd said his father has always been very good about knowing when to step away. He did so with his playing days, going out when he was playing well and he’s doing it now with TV. “It’s something he’s felt he would do for about four years but NBC kept asking him to put it off until they found the right replacement, Paul Azinger.”
Miller owns homes in Heber Valley and Napa Valley, California where he is co-owner of Silverado Golf Club. He will likely spend most of his time around Silverado where his daughter Kelly and son Andy live nearby.
Todd Miller was asked if he went out and played 18 holes with Johnny Miller today, what would you get? He laughed and said that wouldn’t happen because Johnny wouldn’t play 18 holes of competitive golf for a million bucks. He hurts too much. “If you let him warm up for a while he can still go out and hit it. He hits a pinch-draw and he’s still got it. We used to play with him back in ’86 and he hit it fantastic and even putted well, although some say he had the yips.
“He does some teaching and clinics and you can see he still has that flair and ability to hit a shot even today.”
Miller’s legacy will remain forever because of his game, his TV work and his persona in general.
Wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Hoffarth, “Miller combined gravitas with the personality of someone who didn’t take himself too seriously. He was true to himself, even if the truth crushed others.”
Todd said he is lucky to have a father who actually excelled at so many things.
“There are a lot of people that are great in a certain aspect of their life, but for him to have such an awesome career and do so many things at a high level is something I’ll always remember and be proud of. He could golf at the highest level. He could do commentary and announcing at the highest level. He fishes. Some people are pretty lopsided and they do one thing really good. He could race cars if he wanted and he was a great father and husband. He succeeded in everything he tried and that is something you can’t say about many. I have so many things to look up to him for.”
Miller has been nominated for eight sports Emmys and covered 20 U.S. Opens, 14 Ryder Cups, three British Opens and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Miller has been a great supporter locally of Utah golf, helping with the Utah Golf Association, Utah Junior Golf Association and a myriad of charities, causes and campaigns over the years. He has been a frequent attendee at Cougar Day and other tournaments where he has been seen along the fairways and greens making observations about local talent.
Peter Kuest, one of the hottest collegiate golfers in the country with four victories since September, (John A. Burns, St. Mary’s, Pacific and Tucker invitationals) praises Miller who took interest in him as a high school player in Fresno.
Miller often visits Kuest and BYU’s new team practice facility at Fox Hollow in American Fork and Kuest gets a kick out of Miller mingling with the squad.
“It’s just awesome to go hang out on the range with Johnny and be able to pick his brain and watch him hit some shots. It’s really cool.”
Kuest likes one tip Miller gave him in particular, to add a low draw upon approach with his scoring clubs, eight-iron through wedges.
Miller showed him how to play it a little back in his stance and hit a tight little draw that he says “almost makes you hit the flag out of the hole.” Said Kuest, “It’s been really effective so far. It really helps when you get under pressure that you have a shot you can go to that you have confidence in.”
Johnny Miller. You could say he came, he talked, and he walked every bit the walk.
Azinger has replaced Miller behind the NBC microphone but he will be hardpressed to duplicate the Miller style. It’s been a great run.
Dick Harmon is a sportswriter for the Deseret News and a frequent contributor to Fairways.