Why I Will Miss Johnny Miller


johnny millerThis week marks Johnny Miller’s last tournament in the NBC/Golf Channel broadcast booth after decades of, to borrow Walter Cronkite’s tagline, “telling it like it is.” I, for one, will miss Johnny Miller.

At 72, after five decades on the road as a player and commentator, Miller is gracefully stepping down to spend more time with his 24 grandchildren and fixing up ranches in his native California. He’ll no doubt spend some time knocking it around at his beloved Silverado Resort in Napa, where he has long kept a home. And despite what some critics say, and with all due respect to his replacement Paul Azinger, he leaves a major hole in the sometimes hidebound and even boring golf analyst firmament.

He was the best ever, and here’s why.

HE WAS A GREAT TV TEACHER

Miller had a singular, sometimes stinging and always astute way of describing the technical aspects of the swings, strokes and decisions of the world’s best players, without getting too technical. More times than I can count, he predicted EXACTLY the shot a player would pull off, applaud them when the succeeded and mildly castigate them, with that half chuckle of his, when they failed. And his post-shot comments were always spot-on.

HE WAS A FINE TEACHER IN PERSON

Simplicity was Miller’s M.O. when called upon to offer a tip to assembled media or VIPs. When I first met him at the opening Timilick Tahoe (now Shaffer’s Mill), a course in Truckee, California that he co-designed with the late John Harbottle, he was affable if a bit aloof, owing, I suspect, to a deep shyness that he somehow got around when behind the microphone, and certainly when he teed it up. He leaned on just a couple very simple tips for iron play, for instance: Always swing to a one-two-three-four rhythm — he liked to say “Cin-dy/Craw-ford,” a dated but apt reference for sure; and “swish” the clubhead through the contact zone, rather than trying too hard to hit down on the ball. “Just brush the grass,” he’d say, and I took notice. He was one of the greatest iron players of all time, after all.

HE WAS HONEST

There was no equivocation or glossiness or false notes in Miller’s shtick. He respected his audience, avid golfers and casual viewers alike, too  much to beat around the bush, or bunker, or water hazard. He knew they merited the unvarnished truth, even if it sometimes stung. What’s more, he respected the game and called out any infractions against its good name — and the sometimes clueless or self-absorbed players who made millions from it. And if he did make a rare mistake, he owned it. Always.

HE LOVED TIGER WOODS

Some would say Miller heaped too much praise on the best player of the past 20 years, sometimes to the border of out-and-out-adulation. So what? Tiger drew eyeballs, grew the game like no one since Arnold Palmer, and beat the hell out of all comers for a solid decade. In some ways, Miller looked up to Tiger for that extended, consistent brilliance, just as he looked up to Jack Nicklaus, his chief nemesis on the mid-1970s field of battle. He himself was a streaky and uneven player, alternatively brilliant and underwhelming. He owned that, too.

HE NEVER PUT ON AIRS

Sure, Miller could be prickly, and repetitive (especially when referring to his final round 63 at Oakmont), and dismissive of those players he deemed inconsiderate of the game. But in the end he was just Johnny, just another passionate golfer who wouldn’t settle for less than a full effort, in himself or in others. And he did his job well, without a whiff of arrogance. He cared, and it showed.

Love him or not, Johnny Miller knew what the heck he was doing up there in the tower. He left a fine mark on the game.

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