Johnny Miller estimates that he has played the Olympic Club as many as 1,000 times in life - at least 100 times a year from the formative years of 13 to 20 alone. Apparently, even that kind of experience doesn't make him an expert.
"I was just out there the other day, a total debacle," said Miller. "I brought the wrong putter and 3-putted six or seven holes."If Miller can have a bad day at the "O Club," the rest of the U.S. Open field ought to be afraid, very afraid. Miller's advice: Take a good look around, figure out which club you need and add one.
"Take one more and trust it," said Miller. "It always plays one more club than you think, 210 here plays like 225."
Poor putter choice aside, Miller knows this course better than any player teeing off at the Open. He fended off his own temptation to play in this tournament, preferring to take his announcing gig with NBC "to another level" with the knowledge and information he could impart to viewers about this course.
Just a few days ago, Nick Faldo was pumping him for every last detail. The danger in asking Miller what he knows and what he thinks is that he might actually tell you. He has become a star at NBC, not only because he knows the game but because he never tries to pretty anything up with a bright TV smile or a timely euphemism.
Miller's popularity is not unlike that of CBS's Gary McCord, though McCord sometimes plays the clown where Miller's appeal comes from his total lack of pretension. Miller has used the dreaded term "choke" during the final round of a tournament to refer to a player's performance, the kind of thing you'd say in your living room to a bowl of nacho chips but not in a broadcast booth into a microphone.
He has called the Masters "overrated" and referred to a stretch of first-time winners on the PGA tour as the "NBC Hooters Tour" two years ago. At last year's U.S. Open, Miller said that although Jeff Maggert had a chance to win, he didn't like Maggert's odds because "the only tournament he's ever won had mouse ears on the trophy."
"I think (play-by-play man) Dick Enberg almost fell out of his chair, and so did everyone at NBC," said Miller. "It was probably a little cruel. I don't know where it came from, and if I had to say it over again, I wouldn't say it."
Miller acknowledges a fine line between being blunt and hurtful and would like to think he usually stays on the right side. There are probably a few players who would disagree.
"If you tell the truth and let the chips fall, people think they are getting the real deal," Miller said. "But it's hard to be frank and be kind sometimes."
Enberg has admitted surprise at some of Miller's comments but has said, "He is so brilliant, he's earned the right to be overlooked." Miller's frankness has sometimes created a chilly relationship with players, a consequence he never wanted but has come to accept.
"I think they know my parameters now," Miller said. "I think they see the polls, and they know the public seems to like me. I've felt a softening. I didn't want there to be distance. I'd like to think that I have a tendency to pull their pants off but leave their underwear on."
The tour players have to respect Miller's popularity as a broadcaster, but they also respect his accomplishments as a player. Miller had one of the finest runs in the history of the game. He won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, coming from six strokes back on the final day to shoot a final round 63. He won eight tournaments in 1984, a feat equaled only once since 1950, by Arnold Palmer in 1960. Miller last won in 1994, a surprising victory in the AT&T ProAm at Pebble Beach that had the odd effect of satisfying his appetite for playing the game rather than whetting it further.
Since then he has been virtually retired as an active player. He turned 50 last year, earning his place on the Senior PGA Tour should he choose to play. So far he has chosen his broadcasting work in the spring and summer with NBC - a total of about a dozen tournaments - with a limited schedule of Senior tournaments in the fall, including the Trans-Amer-i-ca at Silverado, now his home course. He also travels to summer tournaments with his younger children.
"I think I'd scratch my itch if I played once a year," Miller said. "I don't have a lot of itch, to tell you the truth. When I won in '94, it was serendipitous, an unexpected joy. Then I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I had done what I wanted."
Miller said he has always admired athletes who walked away while they were still performing at a high level.
"They quit when they were still pretty much right there," Miller said. "It's a hard thing to do, but it can be the saddest thing to watch guys out there shooting in the 80s every day complaining about their tee times."
Miller said he plans to stay with NBC through the network's current contract with the PGA, which runs out in 2002. He designs courses and represents Callaway Golf. After broadcasting, he would like to concentrate on teaching the game and spending more time with the junior golf foundation he founded and to which he gives all of his earnings from the Senior tournaments he plays.