King of the Desert
Johnny Miller will end his broadcasting career this week in Phoenix -- a fitting location for the golfer who reigned as the Desert Fox
January 29, 2019
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
First impressions are often memorable, even if they don’t leave you with an accurate picture. The first time he caddied for Johnny Miller, for instance, Andy Martinez stood with the bag and watched his man hit a 5-iron to a flagstick on the back right of the green.
“Just a beautiful fade to 5 feet right of the flag,” Martinez recalls. “But he was irked. I mean, he was really irked. I’m thinking, ‘What is this guy, nuts?’ It was a practice round!”
Martinez soon discovered that Miller was far from nuts. “Fact is, he was one of the smartest players ever,” said Martinez, and the reason for the dismay at being 5 feet right of the pin that day was simple. “Johnny knew he came close to short-siding himself, that he wanted to be 5 feet left of the hole.” It was, Martinez came to discover, a reasonable goal for Miller.
“He was that phenomenal an iron player.”
And never was that more evident than it was a long time ago in a desert far, far away. It is one of the reasons he chose this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open as the place where he would end his lengthy broadcast career.
There were so many good memories in the desert, it seems fitting to add another.
Jan. 10-13, 1974: Phoenix Open
69-69-66-67—271 (13 under)
Wins by one shot over Lanny Wadkins
Miller arrived in Phoenix on a bit of a tear, having won the World Cup in Spain to end the 1973 season and the rain-shortened, 54-hole Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach one week earlier. His hot streak seemed in jeopardy, however, because Wadkins – just as he had done the previous day to end Saturday’s third round -- eagled the par-5 18th just as Miller was three-putting for bogey at the 16th down the stretch on Sunday.
Now trailing by one, Miller produced some theatrics. He birdied the par-4 17th to tie, then the 18th to win.
Forever famous for the 63 at Oakmont to win the ’73 U.S. Open and unforgettable for a 1976 Open Championship win in which the lads who tied for second a whopping six back were named Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros, Miller did what very few golfers have ever done: He made the game look so easy.
That the ease with which he crushed the competition came in the desert, where the perception about soft courses and easy-to-putt-greens isn’t always reality, matters not an inch. Miller was phenomenal in these tournaments and his body of work in the desert – four wins in Tucson, two in Phoenix, two in Palm Springs – still resonates, the numbers hardly in need of the superfluous stats that blur so much of today’s vantage points and dull our sense of perception.
Andy North could care less about such minutia because he had two great eyes, a keen golf mind, and a front-row seat that offered a clear picture. “Johnny did all that stuff back then by putting just average,” North says. “But he didn’t have to because he hit everything inside of 10 feet.
“He was absolutely the best guy on the golf course and in the world. Jack (Nicklaus) was pretty good, but what Johnny was doing was a joke.”
Jan. 17-20, 1974: Dean Martin Tucson Open
62-71-71-68—272 (16 under)
Wins by three shots over Ben Crenshaw
It had the makings of a brilliant shoot-out between two of the game’s brightest stars, only the 22-year-old Crenshaw couldn’t quite keep pace. “Every time I’d make a birdie, he’d make a birdie,” said Crenshaw, who started the final round two behind, shot 69 and lost a stroke to the 26-year-old Miller.
“I never had to fight back,” said Miller, who made birdie putts of 40 feet on No. 10, 20 feet on No. 12 and 20 feet on No. 13 to thwart Crenshaw.
The joke was on the competition and the punch line was this: In winning those eight tournaments in the desert, Miller was under par in 31 of his 34 rounds, in the 60s 27 times, over par just once, and a cumulative 144 under par. Most impressively, his average margin of victory was a whopping 4.75 strokes, with six of the eight wins by three or more. His scoring average was a tidy 67.3
But these were not days of just merely dipping his toes into the 60s; no, Miller had to play with Lloyd Bridges’ snorkel gear he went so deep – twice in that torrid stretch of wins, he shot 61, once 62, once 63, three times 64, once 65, and four times he signed for 66.
Oh, and there was this: From the third round in Phoenix in 1974 to the second round in Palm Springs in 1975, Miller was at least a co-leader for 16 consecutive rounds across five tournaments.
And this, too: He did it in crunch time, the worst closing-round score in those eight wins being a 68. There was a 61 to finish in Tucson in 1975, a 63 to seal the deal in Palm Springs in 1976, a 64 to nail down a Phoenix win in 1975, and a 65 to win in Tucson in ’81. His scoring average on Sunday for those eight desert wins: 65.5.
Jan. 9-12, 1975: Phoenix Open
67-61-68-64—260 (24 under)
Wins by 14 shots over Jerry Heard
If there were fears of complacency following his eight-win ’74 campaign, they were dashed when Miller touched desert sand to kick off his ’75 season and met a large contingent of golf writers.
“I just always felt really good at the beginning of the year. The beginning of the year were big tournaments and a lot of attention was on them. The folks back East were snowed in, so a lot of people were watching,” he told the media.
What they saw on this week was more head-shaking dominance, Miller’s second-round 61 especially so. It moved Frank Gianelli of the Arizona Republic to write: “Johnny Miller did everything but pick up the clubhouse deed staking claim to Phoenix Country Club.”
Leading by six, Miller bumped the lead to seven with a third-round 68, then buried the field with a closing 64, an overpowering wire-to-wire performance.
Why the ability to go deep on Sunday, to make birdie, then turn to Martinez and ask: “Now, what do I do?”
Martinez suggests “it was almost like he didn’t think any lead was big enough.”
Miller agrees. “I didn’t like it to be close because my putting was unreliable. So, I would keep knocking the flag out of the hole. I got a kick out of playing the last five or six holes knowing it was over.”
In other words, swagger, style and substance dominated the PGA TOUR scene with a cool and confident aura 40 years before someone reinvented the wheel and said, “Hey, whaddayasay we call something that is cool ‘Tour Sauce?’ And we make a big deal out of trajectory – we’ll even call it ‘traj’ – and point out that some guys do club twirls.”
Jan. 16-19, 1975: Dean Martin Tucson Open
66-69-67-61—263 (25 under)
Wins by nine shots over John Mahaffey
Two weeks before he would host his annual TOUR event in Palm Springs, Bob Hope stopped into Tucson to play in the pro-am and got the levity going when he told reporters, “I’m thrilled to be here for the Johnny Miller Benefit.”
Unlikely that competitors laughed. “I didn’t come here to finish second,” said John Mahaffey, who hit all 36 greens in regulation for the first two days – and still trailed Miller by one. “He’s only human. I have to believe he can be beaten.”
Not at this moment in history. Miller scorched Tucson National for 67-61 on the weekend to leave Mahaffey second, a robust nine back. Back-to-back wins, a cumulative 49 under to win by a total of 23 strokes.
If it appeared easy for Miller, consider how brutally hard it was for those playing next to him.
“I remember playing Phoenix Country Club (where Miller won in ’74 and ’75), such a terrific golf course, but it was tight, like a bowling alley,” Mahaffey says. “You’d hit long irons, trying to keep it in play, maybe set up a wedge. But Johnny would just take out driver. He was so confident and such a marvelous driver. It was uncanny.
“I can only imagine it was what it must have been like playing with Byron Nelson. I mean, Johnny just didn’t miss fairways or greens. He was a machine.”
One frozen rope after another. One birdie piled atop another. No laser guns. No yardage books. No pin sheets. No green-reading books. “Just an incredible set of eyes and tremendous feel and trust in himself,” Martinez says.
And a strut. Good gracious how the strut, the confident stride, his neck craned and long blonde hair waving in the wind seconds after contact, screamed out, “Well, there’s another solid shot. I’ve done it again.”
“Oh, he did have a swagger. He did,” laughs Mahaffey -- and Martinez echoes that.
“He had the classic ‘Reverse C,’ the fancy pants, the long hair, a good slash at the ball ... he had it all going,” his caddie recalls, still impressed.
Essential Johnny Miller
Feb. 5-9, 1975: Bob Hope Desert Classic
64-69-72-66-68—339 (21 under)
Wins by three shots over Bob Murphy
A sense of shock enveloped the PGA TOUR when in Round 3 at La Quinta, Miller shot 72. For 16 consecutive rounds of desert golf, dating back to Phoenix of ’74, he had at least shared the lead; now, he was tied for second, a whole shot behind Don Bies.
Sixty-six strokes later, Miller was back in the lead to stay, three ahead of Jerry Heard, who might epitomize what it was like for the competition in these days. In the seven desert tournaments won by Miller in 1974-76, Heard finished top 10 four times. This week, he challenged late into Round 4 and knocked his approach to 7 feet at the 13th. Only Miller silenced his charge by making his 30-footer for birdie.
“The rest of us look inferior compared to Miller,” Heard, who would finish third, told reporters. “I’m getting a little tired of it.”
Three straight wins on this desert swing, a 66.3 scoring average for 13 rounds in which he was a cumulative 70 under par.
A whole generation, maybe two, associates Miller with his television work with NBC. Fitting, a desert stop, eh? But understand this: Miller’s refreshing “tell it like it is” style isn’t a TV thing; it was as much a part of his playing days as sansabelt and hatless.
“I was never one to hit it that good on the range,” says Miller, looking back. “But in 1975, one day I was on the range and every shot was great. I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ I was feeling my oats and back then I’d average about 17 greens a day. I mean, it was easy. I’d go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning with absolutely zero nervousness. I was stress-free and this was part of my three years of good putting.”
His confidence came through with his comments. Like when he won in Phoenix by 14 and said, “I’m winning so easy now that it’s ridiculous.” Or when he arrived at the Hope in 1976 and told reporters, “I’m not saying I will win, but I am saying I’ll be surprised if I don’t.” (He closed with 63 and won by three.)
Mahaffey says he was never bothered. “Johnny had a whole lot of confidence, but he was never arrogant. He was oblivious and so focused.”
Likewise, North says he wasn’t offended by things Miller said, nor should competitors have been. Why? “Because he was 100 percent correct,” he adds. “When he was in that mode, it was sayonara. It didn’t matter what you shot; he shot lower.”
Jan. 8-11, 1976: NBC Tucson Open
70-69-67-68—274 (14 under)
Wins by three shots over Howard Twitty
Before jumping into action for a possible third straight win at Tucson National, Miller was asked about the fourth-round 61 that earned him the ’75 win. “I’ll probably never play like that again,” Miller said with a hint of melancholy. “That’s disheartening. That was Dreamsville.”
If it sounded as if he had lost his competitive fire, think again. Tied for 16th after Round 1 and tied for seventh after Round 2, Miller on Saturday slammed home a 30-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to get within one of leader Tom Weiskopf. Yes, he had a brighter bounce in his step.
With a closing 68, he ran straight to another win, much to the chagrin of a heckler who could be heard yelling, “Go home, Mormon” as Miller played the 17th. Rather than confront the guy, Miller tossed him a golf ball. “A perfect throw,” he said. “There was nothing the guy could say. I just killed him with kindness.”
So many of the storylines painted a solitary picture of Miller, a guy who practiced hard, played elite golf, then disappeared into his quiet, respectful family-centered way of life. “He’s an incurable homebody,” Bob Hurt wrote in the Arizona Republic in 1981.
Yet for as accurate a view as that is, Miller enjoyed being in great company. Study his career and you realize he won tournaments hosted by Hope, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Jackie Gleason and Joe Garagiola. It was not a coincidence.
“There was something about that relaxed atmosphere that I liked,” says Miller, who considered Hope a good friend, played some of his best golf alongside Martin, and won a one-day pro-am with Jack Lemmon the week of his ’75 triumph at the Bob Hope Desert Classic. On his way home from that win in Palm Springs, he stopped to be with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
Aloof? Perhaps. But he was a man in demand and while he was very comfortable with the biggest of personalities, Miller never sought out the spotlight for the benevolent side that might define him more than his golf championships.
“Miller has compassion. He cares for people,” wrote Hurt. “He will arrive early for the Phoenix Open later this month to conduct a junior clinic. He keeps gong back to his alma mater, Brigham Young, to help with recruiting or fund drives.”
Feb. 4-8, 1976: Bob Hope Desert Classic
71-69-73-68-63—344 (16 under)
Wins by three shots over Rik Massengale
It wasn’t just the pairing with Jack Nicklaus in Round 2, with Evel Knievel and Lawrence Welk as pro-am partners. It was the leaderboards that made this a star-filled week. Arnold Palmer was two off the 36-hole lead, and when Round 3 ended, Nicklaus and Billy Casper were just one behind the leader, Bud Allin, and Miller was at 213, tied for seventh, but just three back.
A pall fell over the tournament when Palmer withdraw following Round 3 when he heard his father, Deacon, had died while playing golf at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida. Shock arrived, too, when Miller needed 19 putts for his first nine holes Saturday to fall down the leaderboard.
Then he played his final 27 holes in 13-under to close the deal and while the window-dressing stuff was impressive – it was Miller’s 17th PGA TOUR win; his seventh triumph in his last nine starts in the Tucson-Phoenix-Palm Springs swing; he became the youngest player to earn $1 million in career money – the 28-year-old put up the stop sign to a reporter’s suggestion of supreme greatness.
“I don’t want to be compared to Jack (Nicklaus),” he said.
What happened? Miller faced the question a thousand times in those years when the game wasn’t so easy, when the wins stopped piling up. He went winless in 1977, ’78, ’79, and by 1981 Miller had played 10 times in Tucson, Phoenix and Palm Springs without a finish inside the top 25.
Miller heard all the theories – that he was complacent and couldn’t practice because of tendinitis in the wrist, that he had put on weight and had to swing differently, that it was simply a lack of passion – but Hurt, in his Arizona Republic column before Tucson in 1981, suggested this: “Many golfers have self-destructed by forgetting family and chasing after women, but in Miller, we have a guy who slumped quite probably because he cared so much for his family.”
That probably had the most to do with it, but Miller, in his inimitable manner, offered reporters his take: “To tell the truth, I got bored. I scaled Mt. Everest. So, what do I do? Scale it again?”
Jan. 8-11, 1981: Joe Garagiola Tucson Open
66-64-70-65—265 (15 under)
Wins by two shots over Lon Hinkle
Some second-round magic rekindled fond memories of his desert domination, but Miller lost the lead Saturday and fell two behind Don Halldorson.
But the back-and-forth Sunday battle was with Lon Hinkle, one group ahead on a cool, wet day at Randolph Park.
Tied with Miller, Hinkle stood over a 20-foot birdie try at the 18th and thought he had a putt to win. He jammed it 5 feet by, then missed the comebacker and thought he had lost the tournament right there. Unbeknownst to him, Miller back on the 17th had indeed scaled great heights once again. His fifth and final birdie in a bogey-free round provided yet another win. It was his sixth in Arizona – the most of any TOUR golfer until Phil Mickelson tied him six years ago at TPC Scottsdale.
Martinez remembers that birdie at Randolph Park much as he does that 5-iron shot Miller had played into a par-3 during their first practice round years earlier. That is, with unfiltered fondness, for both shots spoke to the genius of Miller and the relationship caddie and player enjoyed.
“It was a three-tier green and the pin was on the last tier,” recalls Martinez. “We had 140, but it was cool, and I liked a little 7-iron with those balata balls. With 8-iron, he would have had to have really gone at it.”
Miller listened to Martinez and deferred to his good friend. “He asserted himself and as soon as I changed clubs, I knew he was right,” says Miller, who stuffed a low draw to 3 feet.
“Johnny always wanted to feel like he had enough club in his hands,” explains Martinez. “He didn’t want to come up short.”
Martinez laughed, because he knows Miller hardly ever was anywhere but right on the flagstick – never short, rarely long – especially during those days of desert dominance. Just an utterly brilliant stretch of golf.
“I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like that again,” says Martinez.