Johnny Miller first came to national attention as a golfer in the 1966 U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. A tall, slender, blond 19-year-old with an exciting style, he put on a fine show of golf on national television as he finished as low amateur and in a four-way tie for eighth place.
That he had the advantage of being a member of the Olympic Club was only coincidental. Miller looked the part of a "comer" on golf's biggest stage, and indeed he would become one of the game's lead players.
Born in 1947 in San Francisco, John Laurence Miller was directed into golf by his father at an early age. Under the tutelage of teaching professional John Geertsen, Miller developed a swing technique that would be adopted by a number of star players who came after him -- an "early set."
With this technique, he cocked his wrists very early in the takeaway and then completed his backswing. It made him one of the most accurate iron players the game has ever had.
In 1964, Miller won the U.S. Junior Amateur championship, then went on to play college golf at Brigham Young University. In 1968, he won the highly competitive California Amateur title, then the following year turned professional and joined the PGA Tour.
Miller's third victory as a pro was the 1973 U.S. Open. An outstanding accomplishment in itself, especially at so early a stage in his career, Miller did it in stunning fashion, shooting a phenomenal and historic final round of 8-under-par 63 on the very difficult Oakmont C.C. course.
Rains had softened the layout, making the greens more receptive than usual, but a 63 in a U.S. Open had never before been achieved. It brought Miller from six shots off the 54-hole pace to win by a single shot, and it made him an instant star.
The following year, Miller solidified his status by winning eight events on the PGA Tour. Of his total of 24 career PGA Tour victories, eight would be in Arizona and Palm Springs, California (Phoenix Open twice, Tucson Open four times, Bob Hope Classic twice), in some cases with exceptionally low scores. Two of his Tucson victories came with 72-hole totals of 263 and 265.
As a result, he was categorized as someone who played his best only in the "desert." In fact, the so-called "Desert Fox" won nationwide and worldwide and on a geographically wide spectrum -- Florida, the Carolinas, northern California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Europe.
Miller's second major title was the 1976 British Open, at Royal Birkdale in England. His best showings in other majors were two near-misses in the Masters. In 1971 at Augusta, Miller had a two-stroke lead after 68 holes but went 4-over the rest of the way to finish in a tie for second with Jack Nicklaus. Charles Coody won.
Then in 1975, Miller fired a brilliant final-round 66 and needed a birdie on the last hole to tie Nicklaus. It was one of the more thrilling of Masters, but it was not to be for Miller. He tied for second with Tom Weiskopf.
There was a notable gap in Miller's victory production from 1977-79, when he won nothing on the PGA Tour and only once abroad.
Many felt Miller's attention had been distracted by the many endorsement and exhibition opportunities that came his way after making his mark. Indeed, he was one of the first modern-day professional golfers to become an agent-directed off-course commodity.
However, Miller also involved himself deeply in raising a large family (six children, all two years apart), and he was beginning to suffer from a neurological problem with his knees that would gradually deteriorate to where he could play only occasionally, and then with great discomfort.
So bad had Miller's physical problem become that in 1988 he was unable to defend his AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am title. Miller would make up for that in a most fascinating and sentimental way.
From 1990-93, Miller had entered only six tournaments, and in 1994 he signed up for the AT&T if only for old times' sake; he loved playing on the Monterey Peninsula, had won the event twice, and wanted to give his older sons, who had high golfing aspirations, a chance to compete on this level.
But it was Dad who took the limelight. He shot a third-round 67 to move one stroke out of the lead with a round to play. And although he struggled in the final round under difficult weather conditions, his 74 at Pebble Beach was good enough to win by a stroke. If it is the last of Miller's victories, it was a beautiful way to go out.
Miller began doing color commentary of golf tournaments for NBC in the late 1980s, and almost immediately he became a highly popular, albeit sometimes controversial, figure. In his analyses of golf technique, he surprised many with how much he understood about the mechanics of the swing.
He also proved to be quite candid in respect to players dealing with tournament pressure. Either way, he was a very articulate and insightful commentator.
For more information about golf, see:
- The Best Golfers of all Time
- How Golf Clubs Work