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And on the last day Johnny Miller cut ears and tail.
There may never be a stranger and more confounding British Open golf championship than the one played last week on the combustible links of Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. Down where the breezes off the Irish Sea ran into a heat shield, ultimately—and maybe inevitably—a young Spaniard ran into the blaze of a Johnny Miller intent on confirming himself as a superstar and measuring up to all those Sears ads.
In this Open, dust and flames and smoke hovered in the air instead of the traditional fog and mist, and for most of the time the handsome, bewildering Spanish chap was mucho contento in the lead while Miller and everyone else was playing the role of El Perspiro or El Grumpo because of the uncharacteristic weather and a course that was gradually turning to crust.
For three rounds 19-year-old Severiano Ballesteros (phonetically, Severreeanno Bal-us-staire-us) led the championship with a remarkable exhibition of putting and slashing shots out of thickets and up and over towering dunes. He shared the first-day lead with two other impostors, an Irishman and a Japanese, but when he gouged out a second 69 on Thursday he was alone at the top.
And when his miracles continued through the third round, even though he was one on one in a pairing with Miller and no longer hidden in the pack, there was a temptation to think that one of the major surprises in the entire history of sport might, just might, be about to take place. El Ouimet at Brookline?
But then Severiano Ballesteros fell prey to catastrophe, and Johnny Miller, gaining control of himself, started firing one of those 66s he produces now and then. The world may not hear more from Severiano Ballesteros, he of the strong left grip, the wristy swing, the whiplash of a full swing and the nose for always finding the golf ball in the bushes. But the world heard what it has been waiting to hear from Johnny Miller since he sent everyone into collapse with his last-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open. Now he has a second major triumph, and that is what he needed to go along with the royalty of his stride and the assumption—his own—that he belongs in a category with Jack Nicklaus.
In fact, Miller's rounds of 72-68-73-66 for 279 buckled the field of this British Open, and as he won by six strokes he enjoyed the luxury on the last several holes of slinging Slazenger golf balls to the crowds as he left the various greens. A day earlier he had slung his visor to the barren putting surfaces and kicked at it. An old Sam Snead, with whom Miller was sharing a house, had given him a lecture. "You don't throw your cap to the ground, son," said Sam. "That's not you. Hit golf shots is what you do best."
Johnny himself said before the start of the last 18, "I'm playing as good as I can play. I'm two behind Sewie but I have to consider I'm really in the lead. I have to think he's going to hit the ball somewhere he can't find it."
There was no particular shot that won it for Miller. It was more a case of the Spaniard's game suddenly eroding. And this juiced Miller up for the birdie-eagle-par-par-par-birdie-birdie finish that he strapped on the last seven holes when something slightly less torrid was what others such as Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd had in mind.
Looking back on his shabby play in the third round, when he was first paired with Ballesteros and they each shot 73, Miller said, "I let his scrambling get to me, and my own game went out of control. He's a good kid, though. He wears Johnny Miller slacks."