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Johnny Miller finally lost his short stroke in the land of the tall cactus. As every golf fan must know, Miller had won five of the six tournaments that had been held in Phoenix and Tucson from 1974 through 1976 and earned $176,150 in the process. He had been particularly devastating in Tucson, posting such numbers as 62 and 61 and letting it be known that in the wintertime, at least. Jack Nicklaus was only a trivia question. But then came 1977, and when last seen Johnny Miller was nursing an illness he called "the mange" after apparently trying to see how many putts it would take him to play from a dry bed of the Santa Cruz River into the Bay of California.
In Phoenix two weeks ago, Miller started the year tying for 41st and earning $680. That was surprising but not alarming. After all, the 1976 Phoenix Open had been the one Arizona tournament he had failed to win. What was atrocious, however, was how he pitter-pattered around the Tucson National Golf Club, a course where he had hardly ever lost anything but the field behind him. But last week he was just another guy out there in a tournament that succeeded despite the fact that it had Joe Garagiola's name attached to it. Miller totally undazzled himself and the crowds by outdoing his performance of the previous week. This time he failed to finish, dropping out after four holes Sunday and crawling back to his casita only a few saguaros down the hill from the clubhouse.
For a while on Sunday it looked as if the tournament itself would not finish. Bruce Lietzke, a young fellow who seems to play almost as well in Arizona as Miller used to, had held the lead most of the way. Lietzke is a long-ball hitter out of the University of Houston whose name first became a spelling and pronunciation problem—say "lit-ski"—last year when he finished third at Phoenix and fourth in Tucson. Two weeks ago he finished fourth at Phoenix.
Lietzke needed only a par at the 72nd hole to win his first tour event, but he three-putted to fall into a tie with Gene Littler. He then had to go four extra holes at sudden death to win the tournament back, doing so by rolling in a 65-foot birdie putt at the 18th green, the kind that Johnny Miller, once upon a time, had made so often in the desert kingdom he has now relinquished.
One thing about Miller is that he manages to look the same and sound the same whether he is winning or losing or getting sick. Ever philosophical as he stood around Thursday afternoon fondling his once-loyal Bullseye putter, knowing he was already out of contention, he said: "Maybe I'm starting out the way you're supposed to."
The way a mortal is supposed to, he meant.
Miller had an opportunity to do something in Tucson that had never been done in all the years since the tour came about. No one from Walter Hagen to Bruce Lietzke had ever won the same event at the same course four years in a row. If it was ever going to happen, Tucson certainly looked like it might be the place. Unfortunately for history, it only looked that way for a few moments on Thursday, the day Joe Garagiola officially became a singer or comedian or whatever you have to be to get your name on a tournament.
Miller was scheduled to go out very early on Thursday. In the luck of the draw he not only got an 8:34 a.m. starting time, but he also drew the 10th tee. A strange thing called frost delayed the start for about 30 minutes, but this had nothing to do with the chill that was to afflict Miller's putter.
On his first hole of the tournament, a long, crooked par-4. Johnny drove nicely enough and struck a decent enough four-wood second shot that settled on the green about 30 feet from the flag. He stroked his first putt toward the hole, and then an amazing thing happened. The ball did not go in the hole. In past years, whenever Miller putted, the ball went in. Or seemed to. Still, a par on the 460-yard 10th at Tucson was not a bad thing to have. But then came the first real indication of doom.
The 11th is supposed to give you a birdie even if a Gila monster gnaws on your Titleist between shots, because it is a par-5 reachable in two blows by little old ladies. Miller reached it with another good drive and another four-wood. He could sink the putt for an eagle, or at least two-putt for a birdie and would be on his way to one of those 62s. But Miller did not get an eagle. Nor did he two-putt. He three-putted, missing from three feet. And on the next hole, the 12th, he missed another three-footer for a par. Quite suddenly, then, he was one over par and on his way to a round of 74, his first over-par score at Tucson National since Cochise was head of the greens committee.