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His putter has the sputters

And this is why Johnny Miller's game was not hitting on all cylinders in Tucson

Johnny Miller finally lost his short stroke in the land of the tall cactus. As every golf fan must know, Miller had won five of the six tournaments that had been held in Phoenix and Tucson from 1974 through 1976 and earned $176,150 in the process. He had been particularly devastating in Tucson, posting such numbers as 62 and 61 and letting it be known that in the wintertime, at least. Jack Nicklaus was only a trivia question. But then came 1977, and when last seen Johnny Miller was nursing an illness he called "the mange" after apparently trying to see how many putts it would take him to play from a dry bed of the Santa Cruz River into the Bay of California.

In Phoenix two weeks ago, Miller started the year tying for 41st and earning $680. That was surprising but not alarming. After all, the 1976 Phoenix Open had been the one Arizona tournament he had failed to win. What was atrocious, however, was how he pitter-pattered around the Tucson National Golf Club, a course where he had hardly ever lost anything but the field behind him. But last week he was just another guy out there in a tournament that succeeded despite the fact that it had Joe Garagiola's name attached to it. Miller totally undazzled himself and the crowds by outdoing his performance of the previous week. This time he failed to finish, dropping out after four holes Sunday and crawling back to his casita only a few saguaros down the hill from the clubhouse.

For a while on Sunday it looked as if the tournament itself would not finish. Bruce Lietzke, a young fellow who seems to play almost as well in Arizona as Miller used to, had held the lead most of the way. Lietzke is a long-ball hitter out of the University of Houston whose name first became a spelling and pronunciation problem—say "lit-ski"—last year when he finished third at Phoenix and fourth in Tucson. Two weeks ago he finished fourth at Phoenix.

Lietzke needed only a par at the 72nd hole to win his first tour event, but he three-putted to fall into a tie with Gene Littler. He then had to go four extra holes at sudden death to win the tournament back, doing so by rolling in a 65-foot birdie putt at the 18th green, the kind that Johnny Miller, once upon a time, had made so often in the desert kingdom he has now relinquished.

One thing about Miller is that he manages to look the same and sound the same whether he is winning or losing or getting sick. Ever philosophical as he stood around Thursday afternoon fondling his once-loyal Bullseye putter, knowing he was already out of contention, he said: "Maybe I'm starting out the way you're supposed to."

The way a mortal is supposed to, he meant.

Miller had an opportunity to do something in Tucson that had never been done in all the years since the tour came about. No one from Walter Hagen to Bruce Lietzke had ever won the same event at the same course four years in a row. If it was ever going to happen, Tucson certainly looked like it might be the place. Unfortunately for history, it only looked that way for a few moments on Thursday, the day Joe Garagiola officially became a singer or comedian or whatever you have to be to get your name on a tournament.

Miller was scheduled to go out very early on Thursday. In the luck of the draw he not only got an 8:34 a.m. starting time, but he also drew the 10th tee. A strange thing called frost delayed the start for about 30 minutes, but this had nothing to do with the chill that was to afflict Miller's putter.

On his first hole of the tournament, a long, crooked par-4. Johnny drove nicely enough and struck a decent enough four-wood second shot that settled on the green about 30 feet from the flag. He stroked his first putt toward the hole, and then an amazing thing happened. The ball did not go in the hole. In past years, whenever Miller putted, the ball went in. Or seemed to. Still, a par on the 460-yard 10th at Tucson was not a bad thing to have. But then came the first real indication of doom.

The 11th is supposed to give you a birdie even if a Gila monster gnaws on your Titleist between shots, because it is a par-5 reachable in two blows by little old ladies. Miller reached it with another good drive and another four-wood. He could sink the putt for an eagle, or at least two-putt for a birdie and would be on his way to one of those 62s. But Miller did not get an eagle. Nor did he two-putt. He three-putted, missing from three feet. And on the next hole, the 12th, he missed another three-footer for a par. Quite suddenly, then, he was one over par and on his way to a round of 74, his first over-par score at Tucson National since Cochise was head of the greens committee.

"You can't explain why people putt badly at times," Miller said. "It might be mechanical, or it might be mental. I thought at Phoenix I might be taking the club back too square. All I know is, George Archer felt sorry for me, looking at my stroke."

Although he did not intend it as any sort of alibi, Miller said the Tucson course was not the same one on which he had shot those surreal scores, like the 62 in the opening round of the 1974 tournament and the 61 in the final round of the 1975 event. Grass matures, he said. There was more grass on the fairways now, making the layout play about 200 yards longer than it still measures. And the club had also toughened up a couple of holes by adding water hazards where, in the past, there had only been clusters of University of Arizona coeds.

None of the changes had anything to do with Miller's lousy putting, however. There was no water on the 12th green where Johnny had blown his first putt for a par on Thursday—and where he removed all doubt about threatening the leaders when he four-putted in Saturday's third round.

"I'm not spaz," Miller said that evening, meaning spastic, even though he had turned a 14-foot birdie putt at the 12th hole into a double bogey. "I'm happy with my game, and the putting will come back. I think the muscles in my back are a little tight. I've been chopping down trees on my ranch. I don't think I'm getting the kind of body turn I'd like. I'm heavier, about 190. I seem to gain about seven more pounds every year. My scores so far don't look like it, but I came out really excited about this year. And I still am."

Miller said he was already excited about the Masters, but he was trying to prepare for it differently, although he couldn't say exactly how. "Maybe I won't go to Augusta a week early," he said. "When I get somewhere a week early, I feel as if the tournament's over before it starts." Rattling on, Johnny said he was going to play through the California part of the circuit and even go to Hawaii for the first time in a spell, then travel to Australia for the first time ever. "They want to see me," he said with a grin. "To make sure of some contracts, I guess."

Anyone wanting to see him Sunday morning in Tucson had to be quick about it. Because he was buried in the pack after rounds of 74-70-71, Miller was obliged to tee off again at the 10th hole. He made a bogey. He did manage to birdie the pushover 11th, but then he was back at the good old 12th, with that wonderful green on which he had missed the shortie on Thursday and four-putted on Saturday. This time he three-putted from 15 feet. Then he three-putted for another bogey at the 13th and called it a day.

Whether it was here that he truly began to feel the effects of too many antibiotics, only Miller knew. Medical minds have never determined if three-putts make your wrists swell and give you a clogged throat, which were what Miller complained of.

"I hated to pass up the $700 or $800 I could have won," he said, "but I got out there today and I couldn't hit the ball over 220 yards. Just no strength at all. I took too much medicine, I think. I've got some kind of cold that must have settled in my left wrist. Don't stand too close to me. You'll catch the mange."

Fair or not, it has become rather standard on the tour for golfers to "plead a Miller" when they begin to score badly. Johnny does have a tendency to blame his health for his poor showings. His withdrawal brought to mind the memorable words of Fred Marti in last year's Tournament Players Championship. Marti led after 18 holes, but then he had a bad round. When Miller asked Marti what he had shot that day, Fred said, "I shot 74, John. But I was sick."

If anyone paused to think about what happened to Miller in the late stages of 1976, his Arizona performance was perhaps predictable. While it looked as if it might be his year after he won the British Open, he followed it up by falling off a motorcycle and cutting his hand and having to skip the PGA. And after that he turned up at the World Series of Golf with one of his son's toy putters in his bag, which, because it cost him a four-stroke penalty, ruined his chances of winning the year's richest tournament before it had barely begun.

In Arizona it appeared as if Miller might have been putting with the toy, but all in all maybe Tucson was just another milestone in his career. For the first time, it was news when Jonny Miller lost a tournament.


Generally a Miller putt is a stroke of genius.