|Johnny Miller at Pebble Beach in December. (Lexus)|
On Saturday night in the grand ballroom of The Inn at Spanish Bay, I was seated next to Johnny for the final banquet and awards ceremony. As I wrote in mid December, Johnny was on my left, my wife was on my right, and Peter was next to Johnny. We talked, ate dinner and talked some more, until it was time for Peter and Johnny to hand out the awards and pose for pictures with the winners. Those were a fun two hours.
(Read my first Pebble Beach post on Johnny Miller)
I’m coming back to this topic so I could share more about my dinner conversation with Johnny. Think about it: You have 90 or more minutes of golf and other talk with Johnny Miller. That was my opportunity, another in a series of surprising experiences I’ve had since I started this blog many years ago.
It wasn’t an interview situation, so no recorder or note taking. Just conversation. I remember scribbling notes about the evening in my pocket-size notebook the next morning in the San Jose airport as we waited for our flight home. Now I’ll attempt to spill out a few more contents of that tiny Mead notebook.
We talked a fair amount about putting—Johnny’s putting, actually—and not so much about the long putter and anchoring brouhaha.
I’m old enough to recall Johnny’s career, including his prime. Some of you may remember that he used a Bulls Eye putter, as did a lot of pros. It was his favorite model, and he said he was going back to it, even though he seldom plays golf these days. Johnny got the yips fairly early in his career, around the time he won the 1976 British Open, his second and final major victory. Not surprisingly, he said it’s difficult to play the tour when you struggle with the flatstick, which was certainly the case for him.
Sun City and Pebble Beach: Adventures in Putting
We talked about two quirky putting times in Johnny’s career when he got sudden inspiration—a voice in his mind, whatever you might call it—to try something unusual in the heat of competition.
One of those times was in 1981 against Seve Ballesteros at the Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City, South Africa. Johnny found himself in a sudden-death playoff against Seve, with big money at stake, a $340,000 difference between first and second place. Remember, it’s 1981. That was a lot of dough.
Seve seemingly had Johnny beat on the first playoff hole after pitching his ball to tap-in distance. Johnny was just off the back edge of the green with a 25-or-so footer, a putt no one makes under those or most any other circumstances. Then it got a little weird. Something—someone?—told Johnny to close his eyes. He hit the putt with eyes shut and knocked it in to extend a playoff that he won eight holes later.
Another instance, a story you may have heard, was when Johnny won at Pebble Beach in 1987 using a 46-inch putter. He gripped the makeshift putter in a normal fashion but braced it against his left arm. At the 15th hole on Sunday, he was struck with a sudden thought to look at the hole instead of the ball while putting. It was nutty, something he had never done in his life, but he was in the habit of listening to these strange inspirations that occurred on a few occasions in his career. One fear—that he might actually miss the golf ball with his stroke! He didn’t. Instead, the ball rolled into the cup and he went on to win.
We talked about the 1975 Masters, one of the greatest Masters in my opinion. Jack Nicklaus won, of course, but some of you may remember that Johnny and Tom Weiskopf had great chances. It was a shootout.
Johnny’s father, a 75 to 80 shooter, got him started in the game and was a very positive influence. Johnny told me that he worked hard at learning how to shape shots when he got on the tour, like the old-time pros, hitting it high and low, practicing baby fades and draws. (For some reason, I thought of Johnny as a straight ball hitter, but his repertoire of shots would explain how he hit the ball so close to the hole in his heyday.)
NBC Hot Seat
Johnny still enjoys doing commentary, but will hang it up in a few years. He talked about something he called the full circle of commentary, part of his evolution as an analyst. I interpreted what he said as an effort through the years to add understanding, or context, to his frequent blunt comments. He won’t avoid calling a bad shot when he sees one. Now, as Johnny told me, he doesn’t just say that a player hit an ugly snap hook, but also offers context, tells why the player may have hit the shot in that situation, perhaps adds another comment, follows up.
Johnny realizes he still rankles people, including the pros he covers. A couple of nights earlier at the Beach Club, he acknowledged that he has to take “arrows” from the players but feels that viewers want to know what he really thinks and what’s going on out there. That got a round of applause.
There. On the subject of Johnny Miller, I’ve emptied my notebook, for the most part. I had looked forward to meeting and talking to Johnny in the weeks leading up to my trip to Pebble Beach. It worked out great.