Instead of premiering at Hollywood and Vine, the pro golf tour set up its cash register in Arizona last week and gave us the Cactus League. For openers, it was Phoenix, and Johnny Miller ran everybody out of the game by playing a pat hand and betting on a 61. Anybody still think he's bluffing?
Miller won the Phoenix Open the same way he always wins, with a smile on his putting stroke, giggling over the last few holes. He sizzled his drives down the creases of the fairways and sighted the flags dead in his irons' cross hairs to shoot rounds of 67-61-68-64—260, 24 under par. He finished 14 strokes ahead of the next man, the widest winning margin in PGA tour history by two strokes.
Miller began the new year exactly as he did the old, when he won the first three tournaments and finished with a record $353,021. Last season he took all but the alpaca sweater off Jack Nicklaus' back when he won eight tournaments and a lease on Fort Knox. But times, styles and backswings fade. One minute you're sporting a wide tie, the next you can't keep your tee shot out of the parking lot. The cynics wanted to know what would happen when the thespian's voice changed. Well, Miller showed that he still has a spectacular act. The only thing different is the date on his winner's check.
Like comptrollers and the Chinese, golf uses a different calendar. It usually opens its new year in celebrity land—Los Angeles or Pebble Beach—where everyone wears sunglasses at night—then doubles back to Arizona. This year, looking for better weather, golf's politburo selected Phoenix for the start of its almost $8 million sweepstakes that stretches from sea to shining sea, as well as to Canada and Hawaii.
The rumor was that the Phoenix Country Club course was toughened up for the occasion, but Fearless Fosdick could not have found the rough, and if he did he would have been able to hit a three-wood out of it. Given a pool table to play on, Miller just kept holing putts in the corner pocket, even though the greens had frostbite.
It was a pity that Nicklaus was not there to see Miller earn another WIN button. Jack was among a thimbleful of players who stayed home. Said Jerry Heard, "Miller is just as good as Nicklaus, perhaps better, and Johnny's improving because he's playing more golf than Jack."
Johnny Miller sets a good example for future Boy Scouts of America. He could give the White Knight two a side and beat him on niceness. He does not smoke, drink or use naughty words, and he eats everything on his plate. During the tournament he did wholesome things like taking 45 church kids to a hockey game, throwing a birthday party for his young daughter and giving a speech to a group of Mormons. His worst fault would seem to be his aversion to practice. "I go out and hit a couple of shots and they're perfect, so I turn around and go back home," he says.
Pro golf is global now, with tournaments played everywhere but on the back roads of Morocco. Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player are global. Miller is, too. He hands out business cards that list his offices in, among other places, Tokyo, London, Sydney, Geneva and Rio de Janeiro. On one side the card is printed in English, on the other it is printed in Japanese. That's global.
In Phoenix, nobody had their suntan or, except for Miller, their putting stroke. Commissioner Deane Beman was present, wearing a gray banker's suit, talking about the exchange rate in Madagascar and reminding his players to smile at the birdies. And the fans queued up for a glimpse of the pro-am celebs. That ambassador of goodwill, Bob Hope, was there to dispense Indian and Marlon Brando jokes. Also present were Evel Knievel, his bombast and his rivercycle. Knievel once boasted he would play the pros golf for $10,000 a hole.
Said Knievel to pro-am partner Tom Weiskopf when the pair met at a party Tuesday night, "Tom [sincere voice], it's going to be tough on me tomorrow. There's going to be hundreds of screaming, hysterical women and children, all running after me and grabbing for my autograph. Tom, I know you're used to playing before big crowds, but you've never seen anything like this. I hope it doesn't affect your game."