Johnny Miller Talks Choking, Open Mics, and Apologies
Johnny Miller has just a handful of events left in his broadcasting career. But that didn’t stop the two-time major champion from reflecting on a life well-spent in our glorious game.
Johnny Miller has just one more televised golf tournament in his future, at least according to his NBC contract. It will be next year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. The reason he chose it is that when he was at his best, he won tournaments in Phoenix and Tucson by so many shots that he was nicknamed the Desert Fox.
In 1975, by his recollection, he won by 14 in Phoenix and by nine in Tucson.
“I was playing at a level of golf those two weeks as good or better than I’ve ever seen anyone hit the ball,” he told Golf Digest.
According to Tommy Roy, NBC Sports and Golf Channel Producer, Miller has been a part of 1,000 golf telecasts since joining NBC in 1990.
“I can say that every single telecast Johnny brought his A-game, his fresh, new, informative analysis,” Roy said about Miller. “I sat in the truck many times in amazement when Johnny would predict the outcome in tournaments.”
Not only did Miller predict who would win, he was also quick to comment when he saw a leader’s game going south. He was perhaps the first golf announcer to mention choke on the air. Before that people knew there was choking, but it was a word no one would use.
“We all choke,” Miller insisted. “For me, I would choke at putting, and I would admit that I did. But I was able to ball strike well enough to sort of get around that part of my choke factor.”
As Miller describes it, each golfer has his own way to show that he’s choking.
“Greg Norman will block it to the right. Everybody has some part of their game that’s easily influenced to choke,” he added. “Yeah, I don’t like the word either, but it’s sort of the word that communicates it most directly.”
The reason he felt he could say it was that he had played a lot of golf, really good golf, with really good golfers, so when he saw someone choking, he knew what he was seeing. He knew what it felt like because he’d had it happen.
“Announcers, they’re just like, ignore that,” Miller said. “Even in other sports I know the guy’s gagging, but they don’t want to talk about it. I’m thinking, that’s one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, is to watch a guy like Tiger Woods, who was so amazing, elevate his game at the end, make the putt every time when he needed it.”
Miller believes Woods and Nicklaus were two best at handling what he calls the choke factor. Not only did they handle it, Miller said they even got better at the end of a round when they had to.
One production decision was made by Roy especially for Miller. That was to allow him to talk whenever he wanted to, without waiting for the director to tell him it was his turn. He could ask any announcer or on course reporter what they thought or saw, or ask about the conditions on the course or the break of a putt at any time.
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“Tommy put it on me to have a conversation, and have it very conversational, just like we were in your living room,” Miller explained. “That was a pretty amazing move for me, and I hope all of you out there and all the fans of golf to have that kind of repartee.”
Most of the time it worked, according to Roy.
“Ninety-nine point five percent of the time, it’s been absolutely great for our viewers, and point five percent of the time, it was a little bit of a problem for me and our PR department. But that was fine. The great way outweighed the bad,” Roy insisted.
“Johnny’s mic was open the whole time, and pretty much the telecast would flow through Johnny, and it’s been fantastic.”
Miller said he learned how to be a team player, thanks to Roy and the NBC ensemble.
As far as TV do-overs, Miller wishes he could rephrase what he said about Justin Leonard at the 1999 Ryder Cup.
“I think that I didn’t say the right words about Justin Leonard at Miracle at Brookline about he should be home watching it on TV,” Miller said. “I did say he should be home, but I meant the motel room. Even then I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
He said part of that comes from wanting the U.S. to win.
“I actually get overwhelmed with what I want to see, almost the kind of things you would say to your buddies if you were watching it on TV, you know? He just couldn’t win a match,” Miller said.
Of course, it was Leonard who then made the monster long putt on the 17th green on Sunday, which Miller called a Hollywood ending, even though the Ryder Cup was not over when that putt was made.
“I apologized to him literally the next day,” Miller explained. “I tried to make a policy when I go over the line that I get a hold of the guy within 24 hours and tell him I made a double bogey, you know. That’s just the way I have done it through the years.”
Though Miller’s last victory was in 1994 at the AT&T Pebble Beach tournament, where he won with a 46-inch putter that he braced against his arm, being on television has allowed him to stay in touch with the players who came after his prime.
“I’ve had like two lives,” Miller added. “You got the golfing part, which a lot of the younger generation sort of heard about me. They didn’t realize that I wasn’t too bad at times.”
In part one of his career, Miller was a great golfer. In part two, he was an unforgettable television analyst. In part three of his life,, Miller plans to teach his 24 grandchildren to play golf. And he said there’s always the outside chance he’ll drop by a telecast from time to time.
“A part of me is sad, but a part of me is excited. Be a little bit like the final bell of the last day of school before summer vacation, which was my favorite day of the year growing up,” Miller said about leaving.
“A lot of things going on not only in my head but my heart, stomach. The emotions and outpouring of support and kind words have been truly amazing so far. I’ve been so overwhelmed the last couple days. My iPhone is sort of red hot right now.”
As for the rest of us, after an amazing 30 years, we will miss his candid comments, his bold winning predictions and his nerve to calling a spade a spade – and a choke a choke. Just like the Frank Sinatra song goes, Miller did it his way, and we enjoyed it.
Johnny Miller Career Highlights
— World Golf Hall of Fame, inducted 1998
— 1973 U.S. Open: Miller shot a 63 in the final round at Oakmont Country Club to win,
the lowest round to win a major championship tied by Henrik Stenson at The Open in 2016.
— 1976 Open Championship. Miller beat Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus at Royal
— 25-time PGA TOUR winner
— 1974 Player of the Year
— U.S. Ryder Cup victorious teams in 1975, 1981
— World Cup: 1973 (winners, individual winner), 1975 (winners, individual winner), 1980
— Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year Award, National Golf Foundation (1997)
— Northern California Golf Association Hall of Fame inductee (2013)
— Ambassador of Golf Award, Northern Ohio Golf Charities (2014)
— Memorial Tournament Honoree (2016)