Johnny Miller Interview
by Martin D. Emeno Jr.
Johnny Miller’s 63 in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club still stands as one of the greatest championship performances of all time. The fiery and charismatic 26-year-old started Sunday six shots out of the lead. Four birdies in the first four holes announced Miller’s intentions. He finished with nine birdies, a bogey and the U.S. Open title.
That victory served as warning to his fellow competitors of what the immediate future held. Over the next two and a half seasons, Miller was a dominant force on the PGA Tour. Known for a lethally precise iron game and penchant for going low, Miler won eight tournaments in 1974, four in 1975 and three more in 1976, including the British Open. Since 1990, Miller and his candor have found a home as the lead analyst on NBC Sports’ golf coverage. (NBC has been the USGA’s broadcast partner since 1995).
Outspoken always and controversial at times, Miller has built a reputation, as his NBC bio reads, on a “mix of spontaneity and humor to go along with his honesty and reverence for the game.” Miller played in the 1971 and 1981 U.S. Opens at Merion. He took a few minutes from his busy schedule to sit down with the Golf Association of Philadelphia Magazine to discuss his broadcasting style, Merion and that memorable 63.
GAP: How do you describe your style of broadcast? What’s your goal when on the air?
Miller: I call it as I see it. That upsets a few people. The bottom line is golf is getting more X Games-like. It’s getting to be a bigger sport. If you ask the young players what they think of my announcing, they sort of dig it. The older guys are used to being coddled a little more. They don’t like you to talk about it. My theory was I was the first guy to say I choked or had the yips. That was just the way I viewed the game. It wasn’t anything I didn’t do to myself. That’s just where I came from. That’s just being true and natural. People know when I announce they are getting the real stuff.
GAP: Thoughts on Merion?
Miller: It’s got a nice mixture of long holes and par 4s in that 350-yard range. It’s going to require a lot of discipline. I think the most telling factor came in the U.S. Amateur a few years ago. There weren’t many guys that broke 70. That means it’s one tough sucker.
I think it’s going to be a lot tougher than the guys that look at just the yardage and say “Wow, I should be able to score there”’ Merion might get the last laugh. I think it could be one of those tough, super-tough courses for the pros.
Merion is such a historic course. Bobby Jones played in his first U.S. Open there and, of course, won the Grand Slam. It’s a lot of history. I hope the young guys would learn and read about it.
GAP: What do you remember about playing in the U.S. Opens at Merion?
Miller: I played pretty good in 1971. I was just three out of the playoff. I finished fifth. That was my first shot, an outside shot, at a U.S. Open. That one gave me a lot of confidence. Merion helped me with that lead up to 1973.
GAP: What were your thoughts/emotions on eve of the 1973 U.S. Open final round at Oakmont Country Club? Did you have a sense the next day could be something special?
Miller: The first two days I played with [Arnold Palmer] and shot 140 (71-69), which is a miracle with his gallery there on his home course. Looking back at that Open, people think I look at that 63, but what I really look at is that I went through the Arnold Palmer gauntlet and still won the Open.
Usually guys who played with Arnie at Oakmont in his prime wouldn’t score too well outside maybe Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Most guys couldn’t handle that. As a young guy, 26, it was pretty thrilling to play with him.
Then [in the third round] not having my yardage card until my wife Linda got it to me on No. 10 tee. By then, I was five over par so I had to play pretty good just to shoot the five over. I was thinking that might be my U.S. Open.
I actually pulled a muscle in my neck lifting up a suitcase on Tuesday. My neck threw my swing off, and I really held it together, by my standards, with mediocre ball-striking and really good putting. Normally I did it with really good ball striking and not too good of putting. Saturday, I had high hopes. I was starting to feel better. Then I got off to that terrible start.
GAP: Talk about the final round 63.
Miller: I was almost done hitting my warm-ups when a pretty clear inspirational voice came and popped in my head and said, “Open your stance way up.” I really didn’t think about it. I sort of heard it, but I didn’t know about that.
It said it again. It wasn’t audible but it was pretty clear in my head. I opened it way up and hit four or five more balls and had to get to the first tee. On the first tee, I’m debating in my head whether I should try this. The first hole at Oakmont is the hardest hole in the world starting out. It’s probably the rudest first hole anywhere.
Somehow, I hit a perfect drive and 5-iron to about five feet and made that. Then I was convinced, OK, that was the best I’ve ever played that hole. I went with that all day. Even an average iron shot that day ended up only three to four feet off line of where I was aiming it.
“I went at the flag on every hole other than Nos. 3 and 16. I was very aggressive. I hit every green in regulation. My average birdie putt was between 12-15 feet. It wasn’t exactly a Tiger Woods, Ben Crenshaw putting round. If it was it could have been a round that stood up a long, long time.
“There are other guys that have shot 63, but not to win the U.S. Open. A 63 is nice because it’s Oakmont. But it’s in the final round to win by one, which makes it possibly the best round ever. You can argue it if you want to.
GAP: From 1973 to 1976, you were the most dominant force on the PGA Tour. Was there something, in particular, that put your career over the hump?
Miller: [My run] coincided with [Jack] Nicklaus. The two of us were pretty far separated from the third best. The thing that I did was I would annihilate the field a lot of times. I would shoot a lot of 61s, 62s, 63s, 64s.
I was doing it in such a flashy way. I was so aggressive I went at the flag way more than most. I had a tendency to self destruct at times, but when I had it going and I was making putts. I know the feeling I had, was “Hey I got it going, these guys have no chance. I’m going to blister them.”
It was a lot different attitude from what the players have nowadays. My confidence was so high.
The thing that really kicked me off was the World Cup of 1973 in Spain. In those days the World Cup was a big event. I played with Jack Nicklaus [Tuesday thru Sunday]. Nobody gets to play with Jack Nicklaus in competition that many days. I won the individual and broke the course record.
Before that I thought he was better than me. That week I was thinking he hits his driver maybe five to eight yards longer than me. And his 3-wood, 1-, 2-, 3-iron are a little better but from there on in I was clearly better than Jack. From the 5-iron through the wedges.
I thought my putting was right there with him at the time. All of a sudden it was like, “I can beat this guy. I’ve seen what he does and know what I can do. I’m not afraid of him anymore.” Basically, I put the pedal down and went to it.
GAP: You won 32 total professional golf events. Does one victory not named the U.S. Open stand out amongst the others?
Miller: I would say 1994 and Pebble Beach. I retired in 1989 and was only playing in one or two tournaments a year. I wasn’t practicing. I was a grandpa in 1994 and hadn’t played in a tournament for several months.
I sort of showed up and I don’t know how I did it but somehow I beat Tom Watson down the stretch. I may have been the best player in January in history. I was 46.
To win as an announcer playing one PGA Tour event a year is good for the confidence. I was a little tough on the players then so that was nice to show them this guy must have been pretty good.