Johnny Miller has been many things during his remarkable life in golf, from golden-haired sex symbol and fearless rival for Jack Nicklaus's throne to his current station as the game's sharpest commentator. His Senior tour debut last week at the Franklin Quest Championship, in Park City, Utah, found Miller in his most unlikely incarnation yet: a jittery pledge being hazed by salty upperclassmen in the 50-and-over fraternity.
In the minutes before last Friday's opening round Miller could be found pacing the 1st tee of Park Meadows Golf Club, muttering forced asides to the gallery and fidgeting violently in a doomed attempt to exorcise his nervous energy. Meanwhile, his 67-year-old playing partners, Don January and Arnold Palmer, couldn't help sharing a bemused look and a few laughs at Miller's expense.
"Think he's housebroken, or is he too young?" Palmer teased.
Catching a glimpse of the bottom of Miller's shoes, the King further applied the needle. "Softspikes, huh?" Palmer asked mockingly. "You really are trying to act like a Senior."
When Miller sidled up to January and asked a boneheaded question about the course yardage guide, January flashed a priceless grin and said loud enough to draw some chuckles from the gallery, "My, you have been away a long time, haven't you?"
Indeed he has. Miller unofficially retired from competitive golf in the fall of 1989, chased by an oppressive case of the yips and the desire to spend more time with his wife and six kids (who these days range from age 17 to 27). He began working for NBC the following January and ever since has pulled his sticks out of mothballs only a couple of times each year. It was at just such a revival, the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, that Miller, then 46, came up with one of his most outrageous performances, scraping it around his favorite course for a one-shot victory, the 24th in a career that includes wins in the 1973 U.S. and the '76 British Opens.
It was the fresh memory of that victory, as well as Miller's brash predictions through the years that he would have little trouble drumming the old guys, that made his the most hotly anticipated Senior debut since Nicklaus punched in seven years ago. Miller further stoked interest by arriving fashionably late: His 50th birthday was on April 29.
History will show that Miller's first poke as a Senior was a long tall draw that didn't, finding a fairway bunker on the right. He went on to shoot 72-70-73, one under par and good for 44th place, 14 shots behind winner Dave Stockton. Perhaps that was to be expected from a guy who claimed that he had played only 15 rounds in 1997 coming into Park City and who remains ambivalent about how much of his attention he is willing to give the Senior tour.
"I'm alive," is how Miller summed up his debut. "This tour has made me feel alive again. It's gotten the nerves jangling."
In fact it was those nerves—or more specifically, a lack of nerve on the greens—that kept Miller from making serious noise at the Quest. "I putted like it was 1989," he said, which is to say, miserably. A ghastly 95 putts over three rounds, which was 12 more than Stockton needed, torpedoed some impressive ball striking. During the first round Miller averaged more than 300 yards a drive (not shabby, even at altitude), hit 14 greens in regulation and was still only even par. "I shot 67 today," he said of his 72, which included 31 jabs with the flatstick. "You give any decent player my ball where it was on the greens, and he would have shot at least 67. Arnold and Don made me look like Ray Charles out there."