PROVO — Johnny Miller announced he is retiring from his golf gig as NBC’s expert commentator, another shift in the life of this Hall of Fame talent.
Miller has been a national treasure on TV, unafraid and unabashed in pointing out bold and sometimes unflattering flaws in swings, shots, decisions and execution by the elite in that sport.
His work will be missed but don’t count on him just disappearing from the scene. He has been active in golf circles all over the world and especially in Utah as a great supporter of the game, in particular, junior golf and his alma mater’s program at BYU, where his son, Todd, is the director of golf.
Miller will always be remembered for his lightning win streak in the early '70s, when he dominated, especially throughout the Southwest, capped by his record-breaking performance at Oakmont in the 1973 U.S. Open, one of the toughest courses in the world.
Miller’s strength was his iron play. His accuracy was astounding. He had power, confidence and the ability to take it low and back it up. At the time, he was the main challenger to Jack Nicklaus, the ruling king of the sport. Later in life, the two became great friends, whose loyalty to one another is legend.
For me, I'll never forget those Miller glory days. It was a blitzkrieg on the game of golf.
Once asked to introduce him at an event at Thanksgiving Point, I related a unique situation with Miller’s fame from my mission years for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early '70s, Miller’s heyday.
Stationed in Davenport, Iowa, then part of the Kansas-Missouri Mission with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, missionaries had long befriended a Catholic priest by the name of Father John Oliver McCauliffe. We called him Father John. He was also the director for Propagation of the Faith for the diocese in Davenport. He was about 5 feet 7 inches tall and Irish.
Father John loved the missionaries. He also loved Johnny Miller.
“He’s one of you, you know,” he’d say to the missionaries often. “He’s the greatest player on Tour right now, you know.”
“He’s a clean-cut guy, just like you guys,” Father John would brag. Father John was famous among missionaries in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska who’d spent time in Davenport. He was in his late 60s or 70s, but his connection with the cadre of white-shirted missionaries was well-known. He was a kind, generous priest who loved to tell stories.
One weekend, he invited my companion and I to the local rectory where we volunteered to paint a few rooms as a favor. He was beaming that day, telling every nun we came across that we were missionaries and that Johnny Miller was a member of our faith, too. It was like he was showing off racehorses and he was the stable keeper.
He was obsessed with Johnny Miller, who had his own clothing line at Sears at the time. Father John thought Miller could do no wrong, that he should run for president of the United States, and he celebrated every time Miller beat Nicklaus.
On Sunday nights during the summer of 1973, Father John would call me on the phone and provide a full shot-by-shot description of what Miller did in tournaments. He would laugh and relive the round. It was interesting that in these moments, he just had to call the missionaries to boast about Johnny Miller.
When I left Davenport in February 1974, Father John asked that we drop by and say goodbye. He presented me with a golf shirt from the Sears Johnny Miller collection.
“You’ll need this when you stop wearing that shirt and tie,” he laughed.
About 18 months later, he visited me and my wife in Provo, where I was going to school and working. He made a trip through Utah and Idaho to look up a string of former missionaries he’d met and kept correspondence with. It was evident these friendships meant a lot to him and was a highlight of his ministry.
But for those who are too young to remember the Johnny Miller fame after he left his playing days at BYU, this is an example of what Miller meant to so many fans who followed his every putt and red-hot winning streak back in the day.
In 1974, Miller led the PGA Tour in money won, finishing with eight victories. Father John missed none of them on TV. In a spectacular comeback after taking time off from golf, Miller notched two more Tour victories in 1981. That year he was a member of what is considered the best American Ryder Cup team ever assembled. He was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in 1998.
Now Miller has retired after three decades as a TV analyst.
Miller has had a remarkable influence on many lives over the years. Since then I’ve followed him during competition in Park City, watched the Cougar Classic at Riverside Country Club with him, discussed golf and his kids and local talent.
I’d have never guessed our paths would cross like this when Father John began calling me Sunday nights with Johnny Miller tales. Father John was my golf reporter at a time when I had no access to TV, radio or newspapers.
Miller had no idea who Father John was, nor did he know of his unique interest in him. But Father John was not alone. Miller had plenty of followers just like Father John back in the day and it only grew with his TV work.
Miller lives in Heber Valley and also has a residence in Napa Valley, California.
He is a legend.
He certainly was then with Father John and he is today with me.