So, the USGA will honor Johnny Miller with its highest salute? 

It is a big deal. Really.

It comes on the 50th anniversary of Miller’s historic U.S. Open victory, a performance few will ever forget.

When Miller took professional golf by storm in the early ’70s, it flipped a switch for an aging Catholic priest in Davenport, Iowa.

The Rev. John Oliver McAuliffe idolized Miller and thought he was Captain America. Clean-cut, tall, handsome, and the talk of the golf world. That Miller was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made it all the more intriguing for “Father John,” as parishioners affectionately called him.

A short, silver-haired and affable monsignor with roots from Scotland, the birthplace of golf, Miller was a comic book hero for Father John.

On Sunday nights, Father John would call local Latter-day Saint missionaries around the Quad City area of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois.  He’d give a quick update on how Miller had performed on the PGA Tour event each week. 

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In 1974, Father John was approaching 70 and had a lot to report. After Miller’s record final-round 63 to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1973, he went on to win eight tournaments from January to June 13 in 1974. That included back-to-back-to-back victories at the Bing Crosby National Pro Am, Tucson Open and Phoenix Open, now the famous Waste Management Open Tour event.

Miller was killing it, burning up courses. He was the world’s premier iron player and chief threat to then-legend Jack Nicklaus. Before Miller was done, he’d won 25 PGA Tour events, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and entertained the world with his television commentary.

Back in 1974, I was on the end of many Sunday phone calls from Father John as a missionary in Bettendorf. Because I loved golf, he zeroed in on me and my apartment phone upstairs in a home owned by a widow. “Did you hear what Johnny did?” he’d ask, as if he and Miller were best friends and it was his duty to report to the missionaries whom he knew didn’t watch TV.

A few months after Miller’s thrilling start to 1974, I left to return home to Utah. On that occasion, Father John presented me with a signature Johnny Miller golf shirt from Sears, the then-popular department store that had signed Miller to an apparel endorsement contract. 

“When you take off your white shirt, tie and suit uniform, wear this,” he said, cackling in only the way he could. Father John’s fame stretched to all corners of the Kansas-Missouri Mission with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, and many were the missionaries headed to the Quad City area who looked forward to meeting him.

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Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought I’d walk down the fairways with Miller decades later at the Star Valley, Wyoming, golf course when that community expanded its track to 18 holes and Miller was the invited VIP. I was there with Fairways Magazine publisher Randy Dodson and other members of his staff. 

Since then, I’ve been honored to not only introduce Miller at an event at Thanksgiving Point, cover him at the Champion’s Challenge, but I’ve leaned against his golf cart and chatted about our health while covering the Cougar Classic at Riverside Country Club. As recently as mid-May, I interviewed his son Todd, now director of golf at BYU, before the team left for the NCAA golf regional.

I’ve often thought, if Father John was by my side, he’d be overcome and cry.

While Miller is six years my elder, he remains an icon to me and so many others around the globe. It’s kind of weird how things come full circle in the world of golf.

These are all reasons why the news that the United States Golf Association will award Miller with its highest honor strikes a chord with me. The USGA will give Miller the Bob Jones Award, which is given annually to a person who displays character, respect and commitment to sportsmanship in the game of golf.

“Johnny’s contributions to our game are significant, and honoring him with the Bob Jones Award reflects everything he means to the game and everything the game means to him,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, in a press release.

“This is such a great honor to receive the Bob Jones Award,” said Miller. “It was always about the USGA events for me. Growing up at The Olympic Club was such a privilege because it was a U.S. Open course and my father always told me that’s the one I needed to win, the U.S. Open.”

In this June 18, 1973, file photo, Johnny Miller clenches his fist as he sank a putt on the 18th green at Oakmont to win the U.S. Open Golf Championship in Oakmont, Pa. | Associated Press

And when he did, at one of the toughest golf courses in the world, he did so in historic fashion with his 8-under-par final round, coming from six shots back to win by one in 1973.  It has been called one of the greatest rounds of golf in the history of the game.

In Utah, we’ve been fortunate to have Miller support many junior golf events and other activities. Before moving back to his roots in the San Francisco area, Miller had a house near Midway, Utah. Like another Hall of Famer, Billy Casper, who lived in Mapleton, we are fortunate to have had both in our backyard for parts of recent history.

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Miller, who played collegiate golf at BYU, became the first player to win both the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Open. It is a feat matched by Tiger Woods in 2000 and Jordan Spieth in 2015.

“When I think of my career, I think of the turning points, and winning the U.S. Junior Amateur was definitely one of those,” said Miller. “The USGA has played an important part of my career and my life.”

When Miller receives the honor this summer, there is little doubt that wherever Father John is, since he passed from this existence, he’ll be celebrating with pride and appreciation for Johnny Miller. 

 And he’ll be wearing his golf shirt from Sears.

In this Oct. 12, 2014, file photo, broadcaster and Hall of Fame golfer Johnny Miller stands on the 18th green of the Silverado Resort North Course during the final round of the Frys.com PGA Tour golf tournament in Napa, Calif. Miller is retiring as the lead golf analyst for NBC Sports after three decades of giving viewers his unfiltered views. This summer the USGA will honor Miller with its Bob Jones Award. | Eric Risberg, Associated Press
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