Johnny Miller was one of the PGA's best golfers in the 1970s and '80s, with 25 tour victories, including two majors. His final-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open, dubbed the "Miracle at Oakmont," is among the game's legendary rounds. In 1990 Miller became NBC's lead golf analyst. Miller, 63, quickly became one of the most respected and controversial analysts in sports because of his willingness to be critical, something rare on golf broadcasts. His pull-no-punches style has made him a favorite among viewers, if not necessarily among tour players. Miller is town this weekend to call the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor for NBC. He spoke about his broadcasting style, the Tiger Woods scandal and who might be the next great golfer.
What do you see as your role on telecasts?
I've always tried to just talk about what I see. I don't have any restrictions on my comments. There are times when the players are going to be upset with me, and the tour is going to be upset with me, but my job is to talk about what I see. It might raise some eyebrows. I might say some things that I could've kept quiet about. But I'm just trying to teach a little and give some perspective in the 15 seconds I have before we have to move on to the next hole.
It's not all about being critical, is it?
I congratulate guys if they hit a great shot. But there was a time that a guy would chip his shot 15 feet from the hole and an announcer would say, "That's a great shot.'' No, it wasn't a great shot. I try not to use the word "great'' unless it really was a great shot.
That are you willing to be critical probably gives you more credibility when you do say something positive, don't you think?
Absolutely. Look, I'm not trying to be critical when I'm on the air. But for so long no one talked about the mental part of the game. When I played, if I got the yips or choked, I was the first guy to admit it. The mental aspect of golf is what makes golf such a great sport. And part of the thrill of golf is to talk about the nerves and the pressure and choking. Before I started announcing, guys just didn't talk about that part of it.
Why didn't they?
Because it's uncomfortable. For me, "choking'' is just another term in golf.
When you started as a broadcaster, did you see it as a long-term thing?
I wanted to quit after one day. I stopped playing at (age) 41. … I was having trouble with my lower legs, my knees. I had other things in my life: six kids, the church. But when NBC called me, (Lee) Trevino was leaving (as lead analyst), and my wife said, "Hey, there aren't a lot of these jobs out there. Maybe you should do it.'' I really wasn't trained for it. But I was a good teacher, and I had a good eye for watching guys and seeing what they were doing wrong, or if they were arguing with their caddies. I could watch players and see how they were handling the pressure.
Did anyone give you advice when you went into the booth?
I didn't have one word of advice. I didn't even know what the Telestrator (the device that allows people to draw on it) was. The only thing anyone ever said was, "Don't pull for the players.''
Was it hard not to root for or against players you played with who you liked or didn't like?
A little bit, especially when it came to the Ryder Cup or if I was watching friends. Some of the U.S. players were upset that it didn't sound as if we were rooting for them in the Ryder Cup. They said we sounded too neutral. But that's what we are supposed to sound like. Players are more educated now, though, about what our role is.
Do players still get upset with you?
They probably do. But you know, I've been doing this for 20 years. Many of the players on the tour grew up with Johnny Miller as a broadcaster. They know this is how I do my job. The guys who used to get upset were the guys closer to my age, the guys I played with. They were more used to being protected.
Do you hear from viewers?
The viewers love it. They want you to be tough on a guy if he blows the U.S. Open. Here's what happens sometimes: I might say something about a player. Take Geoff Ogilvy (at the 2006 U.S. Open). He was on the 13th hole, and I said something to the effect of, "Well, no matter what happens, he can at least tell his kids that on Sunday at the U.S. Open he was leading with five holes to play.'' I meant that in a positive way. Well, he took it as, "You didn't think I could win.'' That's not what I said, but they heard it from some friend or family member who said, "Miller said you weren't going to win.'' A lot of the time what comes out is not exactly what gets back to the player. I once said that Craig Parry had a swing that would make Ben Hogan puke. Really, his swing is literally the opposite of the modern fundamentals of golf. Yet, it works for him. But people get all upset because I said his swing would make Ben Hogan puke. Maybe I should've said, "throw up,'' but that would've gotten me in trouble, too, probably.
Have you ever said something you've regretted on the air?
I will go up to a player after and say, "Hey, you know how I announce, and I crossed the line. I'm sorry.'' I do it immediately. I get to it right away so it doesn't fester. At least I'm man enough to apologize, and hopefully we can move on.
How do you think Johnny Miller the golfer would have reacted to criticism from Johnny Miller the broadcaster?
I'd be the first one to agree with him! Really, I'm not looking for a fight. I used to be that way early on. But I think I'm more polished now.
How has the Tiger Woods scandal affected golf?
The public sort of likes seeing a car wreck as long as no one gets hurt. Well, people were hurt in this car wreck. It's like Humpty Dumpty, and now we're waiting to see if he can pick up the pieces again. And it's going to take more than just fixing his swing. … I'm pulling for Tiger to get his stuff together, make better decisions and get back to being a good golfer again. I don't know that he will ever get back to what he was, but even if he's two levels below what he used to be, that will be enough, because he was so many levels ahead of everyone else.
You recently compared Tiger to Mike Tyson, in that when Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, he lost that invincibility. Now players are no longer intimidated by Tiger.
That's been the big difference. He would always do whatever it took to beat you, and you knew that. You would be tied with Tiger on Sunday and you would think, "He's probably going to make a putt to beat me at some point, and the odds of me winning are one in a thousand.'' Now players don't feel that way. Tiger not being like Tiger gives them hope. I hope Tiger gets it back, because with all these young players coming up, we can have some pretty dang good Sundays, like we did back in the 1970s when you had (Jack) Nicklaus and (Arnold) Palmer and (Raymond) Floyd and myself and (Tom) Kite and (Tom) Watson. It was a fair fight. Before, when Tiger was dominating, it wasn't a fair fight.
TV ratings are up even though Tiger continues to struggle. Is it because of these young players?
Yeah, I do think that's the reason. There are some young guys who fans are pulling for. You got guys like Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson. Nick Watney is sort of a fun guy. Martin Kaymer is a good player. These are fun players to watch.
Is there one great golfer in that bunch, a guy who could be special?
Jhonattan Vegas is a guy who might be. He's got distance and a great smile, and people are pulling for him. We need a good, young, brash player, like when Seve (Ballesteros) came along.
What do you think of the Transitions Championship and the Copperhead Course here?
Copperhead is truly a great course. It was has wonderful balance. It's a great driving course with small greens. There's enough undulation. It's tree-lined. It's got a good finish to it, with 16 and 17 and a driving hole on 18. It always produces a good winner. Players love it. If you look at how the schedule sets up before the Masters … it would be the natural week to take off. But most of the top players don't because they really like the course and the way they are treated in Tampa.