As the rest of us stoically watched our gas gauges nudge us toward bankruptcy last week, down among the reeds, marshes, plantations and retired admirals of industry and the sea, on a course designed in part by Jack Nicklaus and played by just about everyone who ever made a penguin shirt famous, Johnny Miller struck again. He won another golf tournament, won it while keeping an ear on a basketball game, won it with, among other heroics, a hole in one, won it laughing, blond and beautiful.
The Heritage Golf Classic on Hilton Head Island, S.C. is a seaside oyster, its title a shiny pearl, and Miller went after it with his now familiar bold and brash style. He took the lead the first day, stretched it to a remarkable 10 strokes at one stage and won by three strokes on rounds of 67-67-72-70—276 for his fourth victory of the year.
While the other players staggered around the treacherous Harbour Town course like men in need of iron lungs, Miller handled it as if it were a child's piggy bank, turning it upside down and shaking out the birdies. And to anyone who would listen, he had a simple message. He would win. "I've got my act together," he said. "I don't expect to play any better than I'm playing now."
The statement was characteristic of Miller, whose candor can be as startling as a police car in a rearview mirror. Only 26 years old, he has developed a positive approach. The day may come when people discuss the Miller Attitude the way they do the Vardon Grip. "Sometimes talking like that gets me in trouble," he said. "But it hasn't this year."
Hardly. Miller made history and a legion of autograph seekers when he won the first three tournaments of the season and eventually fashioned a stretch of 23 straight rounds of par or better. His victory in the Heritage gave him a few pennies less than $150,000 for the year, which is an average of nearly $17,000 for nine tournaments. Quickly he is transforming a lot of people into yesterday's heroes.
Only late in the third round did his gloss dull, after he had hit a four-iron into the cup for a hole in one on the par-3 7th, which upped his lead to those intimidating 10 strokes. His fans were saying that for his next trick Miller would walk on water, and momentarily the Californian was caught up in the euphoria. He lowered his guard and suddenly found himself backed against the ropes. "I was worried about UCLA," he admitted later. Instead of concentrating on the game at hand, he started listening to radio reports of the North Carolina State-UCLA semifinal from Greensboro, and on the 11th through the 15th holes he hit some shots the way Bill Walton would. He missed five straight greens, picked up a double bogey, three bogeys and a par, and the 10-stroke lead was down to four. "I had been yukking it up," he told newsmen later. "All of a sudden, a lot of my lead was gone. I felt like I was dragging an anchor around out there." Then he added, "I'll give you guys a good story if I blow the tournament tomorrow." Which, of course, he did not.
The Heritage is one of those weekly tour events that floats just below the level of a major championship. It is played on a course that Gary Player once called the best he ever had seen, 18 holes that wind through trees, sand traps, creeks and ponds, flanked by the homes of the wealthy, and finish up along the fringe of Calibogue Sound. Jack Nicklaus, having had a hand in designing it, judiciously skips playing on it. Last week was the third straight time he did not play at Hilton Head Island, possibly figuring that solving his income tax was enough irritation for this time of year. Harbour Town's greens are small, its fairways are narrow, and mistakes are costly, as even Miller discovered.
Manufacturing an instant heritage is one of the byproducts of the event. This was only the sixth Heritage Classic, but officials have found an obscure reason to affix the date 1786 to any mention of it, that being the year South Carolina's first golf club was founded. The tournament presents a Scottish motif, and tartan is to the Heritage what green is to the Masters. Scottish bagpipers parade around the grounds each evening and the marshals wear knitted caps, replicas of Scottish tam-o'-shanters, and carry wooden staffs. It all seems a bit contrived for the Deep South, like dressing Rhett Butler up in a kilt.
Early in the week some people were talking about what was wrong with Lee, Bruce and Tom instead of what was right with Johnny. Last year Lee Trevino, Bruce Crampton and Tom Weiskopf won $730,000 and 10 tournaments, and Weiskopf also won the British Open and the World Series of Golf. Now, after a quarter of the season, the trio is playing like the Three Mouseketeers. None of them has won a tournament and their total income is only $63,500.
The inscrutable Trevino was not entered at Hilton Head, but Crampton and Weiskopf were and they offered reasons for their stuttering starts. Crampton blamed some misplaced timing and Weiskopf had an injury that stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, it was a sore thumb.
By this time last year Crampton had already won twice and had earned some $90,000. He was last spring's Johnny Miller. He showed up at the Heritage slightly worried, although he had finished sixth in the Citrus Open and third at Doral in previous weeks. "A few weeks ago I was searching for something mechanically wrong with my swing," said the Australian. "Now I've just changed the rhythm back to what it was. I'm hitting the shots now." Then he went out and led the tournament for the first 12 holes on Thursday, ran into a double bogey on the 13th, bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes for a disappointing 71 and spent the rest of the week trying to outguess Harbour Town.
Weiskopf's malady was different. Last summer's Miller, he strained a tendon at the base of his left thumb in a practice round before the Phoenix Open when he hit a three-wood shot. "I can't practice," he said. "I've hit some shots that I haven't hit in years, just terrible golf shots, shots that I didn't think I was capable of hitting." To cure the ailment, he has seen three doctors and is taking two different types of medication as well as an occasional cortisone shot. He belongs in the training room. "I feel like a guy with a big elastic band tied to his back," said Weiskopf ruefully. "I keep trying to get going but I'm barely moving." At the Heritage, however, he showed signs of recovery, finishing tied for sixth.
Trevino spent the week in El Paso, doing some pleasure boating, playing with his six-month-old baby and making a few commercials. He has not won a tournament in a year and there are indications his problems may be deeper than Crampton's or Weiskopf's.
"I did a helluva job with this brown little body," he said, sounding like a man on the verge of retirement. "I'm not going to abuse it anymore." Meaning he plans to play less, concentrating on the major championships.
Putting has been Trevino's trouble. At February's Los Angeles Open he admitted to having the yips. "My head tells me to bring the blade back but my hands won't let me," he said. And last week he said, "The fact that I haven't putted well has put tremendous pressure on my secondary shots, my irons. I'm afraid if I don't put the ball within 15 feet of the pin, I'll three-putt."
Miller, meanwhile, was a man on his way to a victory. Properly refreshed after a three-week rest that he used to shake a tenacious cold, he ensconced himself at nearby Palmetto Dunes, a resort he represents. There his wife Linda cooked dinner each evening while he chipped and putted before a gallery of his son John and daughter Kelly or fished local ponds. Miller was bubbling. "My iron game is out of sight," he said one evening. "My average iron is about five feet off line. If I get the distance down, the shot is really stiff. I used to switch clubs every two or three weeks like Arnold Palmer and always fiddle with my swing. Now I've got everything grooved. I guess I'm more professional." Then Miller smiled. Right now golf is a game and life is sweet. Crampton may have a crick in his swing, Weiskopf a twinge in his thumb, Trevino the yips, but Johnny Miller is giving the rest of the pro golfers a pain in the neck. He is winning, laughing, blond and beautiful.
When Johnny sits, a bench is a throne.