Q&A: Miller's last major
Johnny Miller was nearly unbeatable in the mid-70s, but that changed after his win at Royal Birkdale
July 18, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Essential Johnny Miller
The unknown teenager from the Continent impressed with a game that was equal parts erratic and electric. The American, known for unmatched iron play that allowed him to rival the great man named Nicklaus, was seeking a second major title to complement a historic victory.
These storylines intersected more than four decades ago at Royal Birkdale. It was a year before the famed "Duel in the Sun," but the 1976 Open Championship also saw two future World Golf Hall of Famers go head-to-head over 36 holes on a links course baked out by an unseasonably warm summer.
Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros were the two who took center stage in '76. But unlike Watson vs. Nicklaus, this wasn't a showdown between longtime rivals that went down to the final hole. The 19-year-old Ballesteros was a new face on the major stage, playing in just his second Open Championship. Miller, on the other hand, was arguably the greatest player on the globe, having won 19 PGA TOUR titles since his win in the 1973 U.S. Open, where he shot the round that would define his career. Not one of those post-Oakmont wins had come in a major, though.
Ballesteros was two shots ahead of Miller after two rounds, and maintained that advantage into the final day. The Spaniard’s lead quickly disappeared because of his wayward tee shots and another one of Miller's stellar final rounds in a major. It wasn't quite the 63 he produced three years earlier, but Miller's 66 at Royal Birkdale was the low round of the week.
Ballesteros' final-round 74 dropped him into a tie for second with Jack Nicklaus. They finished six shots behind Miller, who celebrated the United States' bicentennial by taking the Claret Jug across the Atlantic to the New World.
Miller was just 29 years old when he won at Birkdale, but he called the victory the "capper" of his career. The 1976 Open was his final victory in a major, and his last PGA TOUR win for nearly four years. A growing family, and his well-documented putting struggles, kept him out of the winner's circle until March 1980.
While Miller's time as one of the game's elite was coming to an end, Ballesteros' career was just beginning. He'd win his first Open Championship three years later, eventually claiming the Claret Jug three times and winning the Masters twice.
Miller will be back at Birkdale this week to call this year's Open Championship for NBC/Golf Channel. At 9 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, Golf Channel will air an hour-long film, entitled “Summer of ‘76”, recounting Miller and Ballesteros’ memorable week.
He recently spoke to PGATOUR.COM about his victory and the venue for the 2017 Open Championship. (Note: Interview shortened for brevity.)
PGATOUR.COM: What should we expect from Royal Birkdale?
MILLER: It's a great piece of property. For years, it didn't get as much glamour as the Scottish (courses), but actually it's pretty darned tough. When (Padraig) Harrington won there in 2008, there were only 21 rounds in the 60s all week. You have to play from the fairway, and the fairways are not that wide.
If you hit it wild there, it's pretty tough. That's what happened to Seve that last round when I beat him. The first hole is one of the hardest opening holes in championship golf.Johnny Miller during his victory at the 1976 Open Championship. (John Leatherbarrow/Getty Images)
PGATOUR.COM: What stands out when you reflect on your win there?
MILLER: My caddie really won it for me. I can't say that too often. I usually go with my decision. My caddie was a furniture mover from right there in Southport, Ted Halsall. He was a good player, about a 4 handicap, and he was good at reading the greens. He knew all the nuances of the golf course. He played it all the time.
They'd been having a drought, and it was running super fast and firm. In fact, it was probably the firmest major championship in modern history. He just said, 'You're not going to hit your driver.' He saw how well I was hitting that Slazenger 1-iron that I had. I can't remember ever missing a fairway with that 1-iron. It won me the championship because it let my irons finish it off, and my mid- to short-irons were maybe the best in golf at that time.
PGATOUR.COM: Were there any similarities between your 66 at Birkdale and the 63 at Oakmont?
MILLER: It was a pretty flawless tee-to-green round. I'll bet you 90 percent of the tournaments I won I was No. 1 in greens hit that week. That's just the way I won golf tournaments, by hitting it close enough that a few putts were going to go in. I didn't do it with great putting.
The only really good putting I had was in 1973, '74 and '75. Before that it wasn't too good, and after that it was really not good. By '76, I was getting yippy enough that I took my wife's red fingernail polish and put a dot right on the bottom of the grip below my right thumb. When I putted, I would just watch the little red dot go one-two, one-two.
PGATOUR.COM: That was your last major, and your last win for four years. What caused you to fall into a slump after winning at Birkdale?
MILLER: We had babies in 1970, '72, '74 and '76, so by 1976 -- my son, Scott, was born May 12 -- I put a really high priority on being home a lot for my young family. And then we had two more kids in '78 and '80.
If I would have had any brains after that Open, I would have taken at least six months off of the game. I wouldn't have played the first half of '77. I had done pretty much all that I wanted, and I wasn't practicing. I just wanted to be home. It was a great run, but it was a lot of years of hard golf. That one (the 1976 Open Championship) was sort of the capper.
I gained 20 pounds of muscle in the fall of 1976, working on that first ranch that I bought. I couldn't even feel the club. It felt like a pretzel in my hands. I had never had a slump in my life until '77. I played terribly. I didn't practice, I didn't play very many tournaments. I wanted to play a little bit, but I should have taken some time off. That would have quieted my nerves probably a lot.
1976 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP LEADERBOARD
1. Johnny Miller, 72-68-73-66 (-9)
T2. Seve Ballesteros, 69-69-73-74 (-3)
T2. Jack Nicklaus, 74-70-72-69 (-3)
4. Raymond Floyd, 76-67-73-70 (-2)
PGATOUR.COM: What shot stands out for the week?
MILLER: The chip-in for eagle on 15, the par-5, in the final round. That gave me a five-shot lead, and then Seve remembers that I got real friendly after that. He said, 'He didn't talk to me for two days and now all of a sudden he's talking Spanish to me.' He exaggerated a little, but I knew just a little bit of Spanish from school. Yeah, I can get friendly when I have a five-shot lead with three holes to go.
PGATOUR.COM: How familiar were you with Seve before the week?
MILLER: I didn't know who Seve Ballesteros was. Neither did hardly anybody else. He was just a 19-year-old, good-looking guy with a big swing who played super aggressively. You could feel his confidence and feel his determination and his drive and his passion.
I know he had a really good hand action down at the bottom of the swing, but he was slightly over the plane when he came down. If he released it, it would go left. And then he would undercut it to the right sometimes.
I knew he was a little bit askew with the driver. He didn't hit them exactly where he was aiming too often. But he was very confident, very proud, and he had a calmness. He was a great putter. He had a big backswing on his putter, and sort of a gliding follow-through, a lot like Ben Crenshaw. Just a real long, smooth, gorgeous putting stroke.
You could definitely see he was going to be a super, super player.Royal Birkdale's 450-yard, par-4 first hole played to a 4.51 scoring average in 2008, making it the second-toughest on the course. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
PGATOUR.COM: Your housemate that week was Sam Snead, who was 64 years old at the time. The Sports Illustrated story from your victory says that he lectured you after the third round, when you slammed your visor to the ground and kicked it in disgust. He told you, 'You don't throw your cap to the ground, son. That's not you. Hit golf shots is what you do best.' How did you guys end up rooming together?
MILLER: That was totally cool. Ed Barner of Uni Managers International had a bunch of players like Grier Jones, Jerry Heard, Jim Simons, Ed Sneed, J.C. Snead, Billy Casper and myself. He was good friends with Sam, being his manager, and so -- I can't believe Sam was even playing in that British Open -- it was a hoot staying with him all week. That was one of the greatest memories of that win, just watching him kick the top of the doorjamb at his age. (Note: Snead was competing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his win in the 1946 Open Championship. He shot 79-75 and missed the cut in 1976.)
PGATOUR.COM: You'll be at Birkdale this year to commentate on The Open Championship. What do you miss about calling the U.S. Open, and what do you enjoy about your new role?
MILLER: As a young boy, my dad just instilled that (the U.S. Open) was going to be the one he was going to work with me towards winning. Everything was groomed towards winning the U.S. Open.
There's a time and a season for everything, and I miss it, but I'm proud that I was given the opportunity to cover our national championship.
It's changed a lot. I grew up with narrow fairways at the U.S. Open and long rough, and honestly it's been really tough for me to see the changes in the U.S. Open for the last several years. It's just a more gentle championship off the tee than it used to be.
I miss the long rough and I miss the rough around the greens where you had to chop it out. It's hard for me to see the direction the U.S. Open is going. I guess I've just got to get with it and accept it. But I'd like to see it go back to where really accuracy is rewarded, not scrambling.
Last year's Open was probably one of the greatest majors in the history of golf, with Phil shooting 65 and Stenson shooting 63. It was just a great, great day of golf. The history of The Open is one thing, and it really is the world's championship.