You can dress it up with a potted palm and a patch of green artificial turf, but a television tower at a golf tournament is really just a crate on stilts: plywood floor, Plexiglas window, equipment trunks, cables and plastic foam coolers. So you wouldn't expect anybody to look as comfortable as Johnny Miller does wandering around the crate in his stocking feet during a commercial break. The former U.S. and British Open champ sips a can of Diet Coke. He munches corn chips from a bag. He stares vacantly down on some pros putting on the 18th green.
Seated in front of a camera at a green-painted desk, Miller's NBC-TV partner, Dick Enberg, grins. "The great ones," Enberg says in his trademark adulatory tone, "can eat on the job."
The great ones, for that matter, can make a meal of the job. On this sunny January day in Palm Desert, Calif., Miller is digesting his recently signed five-year contract extension with NBC. Smiles abound. Miller is happy because the contract will allow him to join the Senior PGA Tour when he becomes eligible on April 29, 1997—his 50th birthday. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol is ecstatic because the Peacock has television's top golf analyst sewn up into the next century. Even the pros whose games he dissects are smiling.
But not all of them. Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange has occasionally voiced the wish that Miller would emulate some of his Napa Valley neighbors and put a cork in it. Other pros, tired of Miller's critiquing their swings, have slammed locker doors and muttered things like "backstabber" and "know-it-all." Even former PGA champion Paul Azinger, a friend of Miller's, once called him "the biggest moron in the booth."
Since it's a pretty small booth, it's probably possible to be both the biggest moron and the top analyst. To Miller, being rated at all is amusing. "I take this work seriously," he says before going on the air, "but I don't think that being an announcer is that grand a station in life. I mean, when I was a player, nobody paid attention to the announcers at all."
The reason that nobody paid attention, of course, is that the announcers of Miller's time murmured a sympathetic "Oh, dear" when Arnold Palmer smoked one into the woods. Johnny Miller, if he was watching at home, used to yell at the television, "Why don't you say it? He choked!"
Twenty years later, when a paid talker did use the C-word, it turned out to be Miller himself. In the final round of the 1990 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic—Miller's very first television assignment—tournament leader Peter Jacobsen faced a 230-yard shot from a downhill lie over water to the 18th green. Miller, ignoring the precedent set by any number of athletes turned overprotective announcers, said, "This is absolutely the easiest shot to choke on I've ever seen in my life." A million viewers exhaled all at once.
Since then Miller has simply done what he was hired to do: catalog the fears, flaws and demons of Tour players so well that viewers can spot white knuckles from a blimp shot. During this telecast—the final round of this year's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic—Miller has already provided listeners with a litany of choke thresholds. "Stage 1 nervousness," he says, "is when you have water left and you block it right. That's O.K. Stage 2 is when you aim it right and hit it in the water anyway." During a commercial, he shares Stage 3 with Enberg and the crew: "It's when you hit a shot you've never hit before."
Miller laughs. Earlier, while on his morning course tour of Indian Ridge Country Club, he gave several examples of Stage 3 nervousness, including the case of Tour veteran Jay Haas, who hit a couple of crooked pop-ups in last year's Ryder Cup. Popped-up drives, Miller explained, usually go straight. To hit one crooked, Haas had to be driving from a very shaky platform. "But I never say, 'That was a terrible swing,' " Miller said, steering his golf cart up the 16th fairway. "I say it was a poor shot, and here's why it was a poor shot. I wish the players wouldn't take it personally." He shrugged. "But I guess it is personal."
How personal is this? In the first hour of the Hope telecast the NBC truck produces a graphic showing that in 1995 Fred Couples, as he does most autumns, won hundreds of thousands of dollars in Silly Season events. "Freddy is awfully good when he's in a relaxed state," Miller says, studying a camera shot of Couples out on the course. "You would not want to play him for a 50-cent skin, I think."