“It’s like my funeral going on,” Johnny Miller said—without choking, mind you—during a conference call Wednesday with the media discussing his impending farewell to his television career.
“Funeral of broadcasting,” chimed in his longtime 18th tower partner Dan Hicks.
Well, no one came to bury Miller. Or to praise him, really, though there was some of that on the call. It’s just that after nearly 30 years in the broadcast booth as the lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, a guy deserves a curtain call. And that’s what will occur during NBC’s third-round coverage of the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Saturday, Feb. 2, which happens to be Groundhog Day. Miller will not long leave his shadow on the network’s golf telecasts, as Paul Azinger slides into the chair the next afternoon for the final round from TPC Scottsdale.
It’s been a long goodbye of sorts, as Miller for the last few years has tried to untether himself from the NBC golf booth. But like Pacino in The Godfather III, every time he thought he was out, they would pull him back in.
Not this time.
“I’ve given a lot of thought about this last event for me,” said Miller, 71, who joined NBC in 1990. “You know, I know it’s time. I could feel it was time to step down, but I stepped down a little early in my playing career and started announcing, and I think maybe I’ve done the same thing here with my announcing career. … I’m looking forward to trying to figure out what I’m going to do next after I retire. It’s like time goes on. There is a time and a season for everything. I’m looking forward to a really good attitude and a lot of gratefulness inside me for all the years of my playing career and announcing career.”
Miller, who had 35 professional wins, including the 1973 U.S. Open and the 1976 Open Championship, would have preferred to exit stage left at Pebble Beach, where he won the last of his 25 PGA Tour titles in 1994, but CBS owns the broadcast rights. Phoenix was the next best option, where he won back-to-back in 1974-’75 and earned the nickname the “Desert Fox” because of his success there and other arid climates out west.
With an ownership at Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif., where the tour holds the season-opening Safeway Open, and golf schools at Silverado and Pebble Beach among other golf interests, Miller will continue to have his hand in the game. But after 50 years on the road since he turned pro in 1969, he no longer will have a voice in it.
His stoicism on golf broadcasts came through the telephone as he talked about his departure, but Hicks, also on the call, was a bit more emotional.
“I’m not going to lie. This is going to be tough for me,” said Hicks, who succeeded Dick Enberg as NBC’s golf anchor in 2000. “When you’ve got something going this good for all this time, you just want to keep it. You want to be a little selfish about it and just kind of keep it going and going and going because it’s such a great thing to hear him next to me and hear him describe the action, which has just I think changed the landscape of the whole business of golf broadcasting. No doubt about that.”
Miller did, literally, with a single one-syllable word: choke. That was as verboten from a broadcaster as the word shank is from a playing partner. Miller didn’t care, and he wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone. He just knew what a golfer might be feeling at times of high stress. Players bristled. Viewers brayed in appreciation.
“I think what people like … when you go to New York or Boston it’s always, Hey, Johnny, keep telling it like it is. That’s what every guy says. People are starving for the truth. A lot of people don’t want to go there. They don’t want to go for truthful things that maybe sound like they’re hurtful a little bit but they’re truths.
“I’m just being myself. I’m not trying to do anything. It’s just the way I view golf. I always say the pressure and the choke factor in golf are by far the most interesting part of golf. Greatest game in the world to basically choke on. It’s the greatest game.”
And, in truth, Miller knows he didn’t always get it right.
One of his favorite calls was during his first U.S. Open in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills, when Corey Pavin hit a fairway wood to within six feet of the cup on the 72nd hole. “He’s hit the shot of his life,” Miller exclaimed. For Hicks, he still marvels at the comment Miller offered at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “We weren’t even through the first round and Johnny said, ‘I just have this feeling that he’s going to do something special this week. He’s going to break all sorts of records. He’s going to have like a historical week.’ Then we all know what happened, a 15-shot victory.”
And on the other side, well, he’ll never get the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., out of his head, when he said on Saturday that a struggling Justin Leonard should have stayed home. Leonard went on to clinch the U.S. comeback in singles the next day thanks to a 40-foot putt on the 17th green that set off an overzealous and controversial American celebration.
“That wasn’t too good,” Miller said of the Leonard remark. “There has been quite a few of them that probably I shouldn’t have said. Unfortunately, people love it. I don’t say it to make people love it. Just at that time, at the Ryder Cup I would get so darn mad because the U.S. just couldn’t win a Ryder Cup. Come on guys, you know? Sometimes like that my heart is in the right spot but the filter is not real … it’s pretty poor.”
“But I did try to apologize. My technique was if I said something like that I tried to apologize within 24 hours if I can. Like Craig Perry. I said that his swing would make Ben Hogan puke. That didn’t go over real big. Been a few things like that.”
Like the occasion early in his broadcast career when he opined that Leonard Thompson “looked like he has sort of a stick up his rear and doesn’t have any rhythm in his swing,” Miller recalled. “He came up to me the next day. ‘I hear you don’t like my swing.’ Actually, I don’t. Sorry.”
But he didn’t have to apologize often. And he never had to apologize for being himself. It was the only way he knew how to do the job. His choice of words was almost always well chosen, even if it wasn’t well received in certain circles.
The Hall for Famer ended Wednesday’s phone call with some well-chosen words that represented a last lament. And a hint at what is next.
“I think there is no real reason why I’m stepping down except for I just think I sort of like the round number of 50 years on the road. With all the responsibility of my big family and the grandkids, that was the main reason, is them. I’m jealous of my father, all the time that he spent with me and my game. Now with the grandkids, you know, time is the greatest gift you can give your kids. I’ve been pretty busy. It’s not like I did that many events every year, but just the body of work with my other involvements. We have a saying in our church that no amount of success can compensate for failure in the home. Not that I failed in the home, but I could have shot a little better score if I had been home more often.
“I think most men … they have to answer to that because life is very busy. It’s crazy busy actually. We just have to make time. I got this little window left, hopefully it’s 15 years or whatever it is, where I can impart some of the knowledge that I have and life skills and whatever to these grandkids that I have—and my own kids too for that matter. Also keep any marriage really strong, which it’s been.
“Probably more of an answer than you wanted,” he added, “but those are the kind of things that have been rattling around in my head.”
And for three decades he’s been sharing the things rattling in his head. What should not rattle around in there is the thought he won’t be missed.