You can dress it up with a potted palm and a patch of green
artificial turf, but a television tower at a golf tournament is
really just a crate on stilts: plywood floor, Plexiglas window,
equipment trunks, cables and plastic foam coolers. So you
wouldn't expect anybody to look as comfortable as Johnny Miller
does wandering around the crate in his stocking feet during a
commercial break. The former U.S. and British Open champ sips a
can of Diet Coke. He munches corn chips from a bag. He stares
vacantly down on some pros putting on the 18th green.
Seated in front of a camera at a green-painted desk, Miller's
NBC-TV partner, Dick Enberg, grins. "The great ones," Enberg
says in his trademark adulatory tone, "can eat on the job."
The great ones, for that matter, can make a meal of the job. On
this sunny January day in Palm Desert, Calif., Miller is
digesting his recently signed five-year contract extension with
NBC. Smiles abound. Miller is happy because the contract will
allow him to join the Senior PGA Tour when he becomes eligible
on April 29, 1997--his 50th birthday. NBC Sports president Dick
Ebersol is ecstatic because the Peacock has television's top
golf analyst sewn up into the next century. Even the pros whose
games he dissects are smiling.
But not all of them. Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange
has occasionally voiced the wish that Miller would emulate some
of his Napa Valley neighbors and put a cork in it. Other pros,
tired of Miller's critiquing their swings, have slammed locker
doors and muttered things like "backstabber" and "know-it-all."
Even former PGA champion Paul Azinger, a friend of Miller's,
once called him "the biggest moron in the booth."
Since it's a pretty small booth, it's probably possible to be
both the biggest moron and the top analyst. To Miller, being
rated at all is amusing. "I take this work seriously," he says
before going on the air, "but I don't think that being an
announcer is that grand a station in life. I mean, when I was a
player, nobody paid attention to the announcers at all."
The reason that nobody paid attention, of course, is that the
announcers of Miller's time murmured a sympathetic "Oh, dear"
when Arnold Palmer smoked one into the woods. Johnny Miller, if
he was watching at home, used to yell at the television, "Why
don't you say it? He choked!"
Twenty years later, when a paid talker did use the C-word, it
turned out to be Miller himself. In the final round of the 1990
Bob Hope Chrysler Classic--Miller's very first television
assignment--tournament leader Peter Jacobsen faced a 230-yard
shot from a downhill lie over water to the 18th green. Miller,
ignoring the precedent set by any number of athletes turned
overprotective announcers, said, "This is absolutely the easiest
shot to choke on I've ever seen in my life." A million viewers
exhaled all at once.
Since then Miller has simply done what he was hired to do:
catalog the fears, flaws and demons of Tour players so well that
viewers can spot white knuckles from a blimp shot. During this
telecast--the final round of this year's Bob Hope Chrysler
Classic--Miller has already provided listeners with a litany of
choke thresholds. "Stage 1 nervousness," he says, "is when you
have water left and you block it right. That's O.K. Stage 2 is
when you aim it right and hit it in the water anyway." During a
commercial, he shares Stage 3 with Enberg and the crew: "It's
when you hit a shot you've never hit before."
Miller laughs. Earlier, while on his morning course tour of
Indian Ridge Country Club, he gave several examples of Stage 3
nervousness, including the case of Tour veteran Jay Haas, who
hit a couple of crooked pop-ups in last year's Ryder Cup.
Popped-up drives, Miller explained, usually go straight. To hit
one crooked, Haas had to be driving from a very shaky platform.
"But I never say, 'That was a terrible swing,'" Miller said,
steering his golf cart up the 16th fairway. "I say it was a poor
shot, and here's why it was a poor shot. I wish the players
wouldn't take it personally." He shrugged. "But I guess it is
How personal is this? In the first hour of the Hope telecast the
NBC truck produces a graphic showing that in 1995 Fred Couples,
as he does most autumns, won hundreds of thousands of dollars in
Silly Season events. "Freddy is awfully good when he's in a
relaxed state," Miller says, studying a camera shot of Couples
out on the course. "You would not want to play him for a 50-cent
skin, I think."
Minutes later Couples is shown tight-lipped after skipping one
into the water behind the 16th green. He is soon off the leader
As jobs go, that of television golf analyst is physically
undemanding. For most of the broadcast Miller and Enberg have
their backs to the 18th green. They get their audio cues via
headsets and their visual input via television monitors. "This
is the only sport where the audience sees as much as the
announcers," says Enberg. "Johnny could do the tournament from
his home in Napa Valley if he had a production crew."
What Miller couldn't do from his opulent ranch house is study
the tournament courses--an exercise that he has raised to an art
form. Shortly after dawn on the day of every telecast he grabs a
putter, some balls and a legal pad and lurches out of the NBC
compound in a golf cart. "I could probably fake it," he says on
a cool Saturday morning, speeding up the 10th fairway at Indian
Ridge, "but it's one of the best things about the job, being out
here alone. It's sort of peaceful."
These days his thrills resemble those of a paleontologist.
Studying Indian Ridge, he searches for divot fields in the
fairways. He checks out bunkers for unmanageable angles. On
every green he putts two or three balls from each point of the
compass and charts the breaks on his legal pad. Specifically, he
looks for the "fall line"--a skiing term that in golf describes
the line on which a putt breaks neither left nor right. "Once
you've found the straight putt," he says, "it's really easy to
know what all the other putts are going to do."
What excites Miller, though, are the anomalies, the unreadable
putts. The 13th green at Indian Ridge has him wrinkling his
eyebrows and drawing red stars on his diagram. "This green has
two distinctly different grain patterns," he says. Guiding his
putter while still clutching his pencil and pad, he watches a
downhill putt veer away from the lower Coachella Valley, which
acts as a magnet for most putts in this desert. "This is one of
the strangest greens," he says. "This putt breaks three inches
this way, and from the other direction it breaks three inches
the other way. I don't see that once a year." It isn't lost on
the observer that Miller makes a high percentage of these 15-
and 20-footers, even when he putts one-handed. "To be honest, I
wish I'd done this kind of homework when I was playing," says
Miller, whose putter was the weakest club in his bag when he
quit the Tour in 1989. "Instead, I was worried about hitting my
driver in the fairway."
What all his preparation counts for is a question even Miller
can't answer. He just feels it gives him an edge over other
analysts. He already laps the field as a swing diagnostician and
teacher, using the Telestrator and demonstrations to make swing
mechanics understandable. And no analyst has shown a greater
knack for prophesy. At last year's U.S. Amateur, Miller said, "I
wouldn't be surprised if he knocks it a foot from the hole,"
just before Tiger Woods flew an eight-iron shot to within 18
inches of the flag to clinch the title. Even more amazing to
Miller's colleagues was his call of Strange's approach shot to
the 18th green on the final day of the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill.
Guest analyst Azinger, standing a few feet from Strange, said,
"He flagged it!" Miller, in the 18th-hole crate on stilts, said,
"No, no, that's thin, that's thin." Strange's ball landed well
short, on the steep bank fronting the green.
"And that's from a headset and a monitor," says NBC Sports
executive producer Tommy Roy. "He's really intuitive." Says
Enberg, "Johnny just hears a shot and says, 'Two grooves
up--it'll be short and to the right.' He's amazing."
Still, Miller's real gift--the one the players wish he didn't
have--is his ability to smell fear on a golfer. Miller's is the
voice reminding viewers that birdies can turn to bogeys in a
heartbeat, that water on the left can cause a player who
normally fades the ball to hook it violently, that doubt lurks
in the sunniest minds. "Players don't like that kind of talk,"
says Roy, "because they're trying to eliminate anything that's
negative from their minds. And all emotion. Unfortunately, that
makes for very bad television."
"Golf is a big chess game of good and bad possibilities," says
Miller. He knows, for instance, that it is possible for a golfer
of moderate overall accomplishment to achieve true brilliance
for sustained periods. He knows this because he packed half of
his own 24 Tour wins into one cometlike pass two decades ago
that saw him winning tournaments by as many as 14 shots and had
people wondering if Jack Nicklaus would end up as a footnote in
golf history. Miller knows, as well, that fear or inattention
can cause the greatest player to fail. He knows this because in
1972 he cold-shanked a seven-iron on the 16th at Pebble Beach to
lose the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Good and bad
possibilities? Miller is the man who shot the greatest final
round in U.S. Open history, a 63 to win at Oakmont in 1973, with
the destructive mantra don't shank it echoing in his skull the
whole back nine. "The most important thing the players need to
know," he says, "is that when they're over the putt, I hope they
make it. I'm not jealous."
One problem, as Miller sees it, is that players often hear his
stuff secondhand, from a relative or friend. Jacobsen stewed for
months over Miller's "opportunity to choke" crack, only to
change his mind when he finally saw a replay of his win-securing
shot over the water. An apologetic Jacobsen told Miller, "You
were coverin' my butt in case I did choke!" Azinger's "moron"
remark, made at the 1991 Ryder Cup, was also based on grapevine
A bigger problem, Miller's critics say, is that he spends too
little time on the range and in the locker room making friends.
And Miller, surprisingly, agrees. "You don't see Johnny Miller
if you're a player," he says. "I'm like a guy in the bushes
shooting BBs at them." Miller's goal for 1996 is to study the
golfers as much as he studies the courses--even if it means
confronting players he has stung with his candor or he has been
stung by, something that he is not hesitant to do.
After Miller shocked the sports world by stepping out of the
tower to win the 1994 AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, Greg
Norman slammed his announcing, saying Miller had been away from
the game too long and was out of touch with the Tour. "And we'd
each won one tournament that year," Miller says with a laugh. "I
like Greg. I think he's the greatest player in the world. But
I've never been one to kowtow to Greg and drool all over him.
He's never played up to his ability in the U.S." That's
Miller--not necessarily deep but always quick.
"Johnny shoots from the hip, and that's why people like him,"
says Strange. "NBC was smart to re-sign him." The old line about
his having "no filter between his brain and his
mouth"--attributed to various NBC staffers, as well as to Miller
himself--is really a tribute to his golf instincts. In truth he
knows how quickly a loose remark can cost an announcer an
assignment (Gary McCord) or a career (Ben Wright). At this
year's Hope, Miller waits for a commercial to voice a harmless
but bawdy remark about one of the tournament leaders. "There is
a filter," says statistician John Goldstein when the laughter
has died down. "A very flimsy one, though."
Still to be answered is the question Miller asks himself: Can a
fellow have it all? His new NBC contract accommodates his dream
of broadcasting the network's PGA Tour and USGA events, playing
five to 12 Senior tour events a year, hanging on to his
lucrative endorsement gig with Callaway and still finding time
for his wife, Linda, and their six children, ages 16 to 25. "A
part of me still says, 'Johnny, you're a player,'" he admits.
Another part of him--the part below the knees that aches from two
operations and a shin condition called compartment syndrome--says
he should stick to the booth, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks.
"Five, four, three ..." drones a woman wearing a headset. She
finishes the countdown with two extended fingers, then one
finger, then a fist. Seconds later Miller is deep in thought,
watching the man who will win the tournament, Mark Brooks, hit a
weak approach shot on the 13th. "He didn't finish his backswing,
Rog," he tells course reporter Roger Maltbie. "He just sort of
blurred his backswing and downswing."
Or at least, Miller might well say, that's how it looks from the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BURGESS [Johnny Miller]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BURGESS Miller's playing career could have gone off the charts if he had prepared as assiduously as he does before going on the air. [Johnny Miller holding pad of paper; diagram of golf hole on sheet of paper]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BURGESS A critic in the past, Strange, who often works with a rival network, sees the value of Miller's candor. [Johnny Miller and Curtis Strange]