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When Johnny Miller was young, golf for him was a string of 61s, but as he moved into his mid-30's, the game he had once played so effortlessly became more difficult. From a tee he would look down the fairway and see only woods or water. On the green a four-foot putt for par would turn him—in his own words—"into a chokin' dog."
Which is why we now see, and hear, Miller in an NBC television booth high above the 18th green, commenting on the action with a candor that has already annoyed some pros. In his very first outing, during the Saturday round of the Bob Hope Classic in January, the camera showed Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka on a green and then cut to Ditka on a football sideline, ranting and raving as is his wont. "Looks like Curtis Strange after a three-putt," said Miller.
The phone that rang at PGA Tour headquarters, in Ponte Vedra, Fla., on Monday morning signaled the displeasure of the two-time U.S. Open champion. "I can see how people everywhere in America thought it was funny," Strange said to Terry Hanson, the tour's vice-president for communications. "But I didn't. I'm trying to improve my image."
As Peter Jacobsen, the eventual winner of the Hope, prepared to hit a crucial approach on the final hole, Miller said, "This is absolutely the easiest shot to choke on I've ever seen in my life." No less a TV critic than Jack Nicklaus advised Miller not to be so negative.
Miller wound up in the TV booth after Lee Trevino, who had been NBC's resident pro, announced last year that he would rather play the Senior tour. The network considered a number of replacements, among them Fuzzy Zoeller, Raymond Floyd, Roger Maltbie and Jacobsen, but all of them wanted to play in many of the tournaments NBC would be covering. "I don't mean to downplay myself," says Miller. "But Terry O'Neil [executive producer of NBC Sports] must have been looking under rocks by the time he called me."
So Miller climbed the TV tower to sit beside golf junkie Bryant Gumbel, who has replaced Vin Scully as NBC's golf anchor. Friends warned Miller that Gumbel would eat him alive, but, says Miller, "he's taken the heat off me. He's treated me like an old fishing buddy."
In a typical tournament week Miller arrives at the site on Thursday night and spends much of Friday in a production meeting. On Saturday, two hours before play starts, he goes out on the golf course and putts every green on the back nine. "From a television screen you can't tell what a ball's going to do," he says.
What Miller hopes he is bringing to televised golf is honesty. When a player misses a pivotal short putt, others will say something like "he pulled it" or "the grain grabbed it" or "he misread it." By contrast, Miller is likely to say, "He choked."
"I want to be unpredictable," he says. "Terry has told me to say whatever comes to mind."
And so he has. Miller, ever the pessimist, sees demons and dragons around every dogleg. He did as a player, and he does as a commentator. Here is an exchange with Gumbel after Jacobsen hit a shot far right at the Hope.