Johnny Miller’s television commentary was 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 — will be silenced after Saturday's third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona. That is when the 71-year-old former BYU star will retire from NBC Sports.
Miller 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 the 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.
This desert scene is where Miller tore up the PGA Tour through sand and cactus 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.
It was both refreshing and fun, even if it rankled some pros when he used words such as “choke” and “puke.”
Because Miller had done it as well 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 3 or 4 years old when his father quit playing competitive golf. He’s only seen videos of the days his father, a handsome blonde 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 could be considered the best round of golf ever if you consider the equipment of the day 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 as a player, 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.
I asked Todd, "If you 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 both because of his game and TV work, and because of 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 as his son, for him to have such an awesome career in so many things is something I’ll always remember and be proud of,” Todd said. “He could golf at the highest level. He could do commentary and announcing.18 comments on this story
“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.”
Johnny 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.
You could say he came, he talked, and he walked every bit the walk.
He has been a national treasure.
As they roll the credits on his last event and the screen fades to black, we will miss him. It’s been a great run.