There must be more Apache than Mormon in Johnny Miller. He's to desert golf what eggs are to an omelet. But his victory last week, on a desert course in Tucson, was still something of a surprise, a very nice surprise. That the tall blond with the stylish game could start off the new season by winning the first tournament of the year—and winning it "in the heat," as the pros say—is a good sign for the game. It's an even better sign for Miller, of course. He's a player of enormous talent who once could challenge Jack Nicklaus for the headlines and the lion's share of the prize money. Then after a four-year flirtation with immortality, he vanished for about the same period of time. "Whatever happened to Johnny Miller?" became a question that could only be answered with certainty by the courtesy car driver who took Miller to the airport after he'd missed another cut.
Miller blames his eclipse and the deterioration of his game on poor putting. After being as good a player as there was in the world from 1974 through 1976, he went 49 months without a victory and sank deep into despair. In 1974 he won eight tournaments and more than $350, 000, which was then a record, but by 1978 he was a lonely figure who won only $17,440 and slid to 111th place on the earnings list. He talked a lot about quitting, but happily for the game he didn't.
Miller's comeback began late in the summer of 1979, when he tied Tom Watson in the Colgate-Hall of Fame Classic. Though he lost the playoff, his name was back in the papers. Last year in Florida he won the Inverrary Classic, but when he made no other serious challenges the rest of the year, that accomplishment was tossed aside as a fluke, despite winnings of $127,117, good for 30th on the money list. But Miller knew he was on the way back.
Last Sunday afternoon in Tucson, after blazing in with a final-round 65 on the Randolph Park municipal course and winning a tournament in the clutch, he said, "Nobody knows what it's like to spend four years being nervous over every putt and wondering if you're ever going to win again. I guess winning had been too easy for me in the first place."
As so many reviving golfers do, Miller gave most of the credit for his victory to a new putter—or, rather, an old one, a 1945 Tommy Armour. A friend in Napa, Calif. had given it to him before the Tucson Open.
"The minute I had it in my hands, I knew it was the one," Miller said. "My game was working its way back, and when I found myself standing over a putt actually thinking about making it instead of which side I was going to miss it on, I had a feeling I would play well."
It was Miller's ninth victory in the desert. He had won at Tucson and Phoenix and La Costa in 1974, at Tucson and Phoenix and Palm Springs in 1975, at Tucson and Palm Springs in 1976—all before going into his tailspin. But none of those wins was as sweet as last week's, particularly because of the way in which he accomplished it.
Miller started Sunday two strokes behind the leader, Dan Halldorson. Miller birdied two holes on the front nine, and with nine holes to play on a damp, chilly day, he found himself tied for first with Lon Hinkle, one of golf's better players and a tenacious competitor.
"I can't say I thought I was going to win, because I didn't know how I was going to react under the pressure," said Miller, who was playing in the group behind Hinkle's. "Lon is a great player, a step away from being a superstar."
Hinkle birdied the 10th hole to take a one-shot lead, but Miller birdied the 12th and they were tied. Miller grabbed the lead when he birdied the 14th, but Hinkle evened matters with a birdie at the 15th. It all came down to Johnny Miller looking like the Johnny Miller of 1974 at the par-four 17th hole.