Dec
16
2010
Johnny Miller on Choking, Tiger, Phil, the Young Guys, and Naturally, Himself
By Stephanie Wei under Interviews

Besides playing a few of America’s greatest courses at the Lexus Champions for Charity event in Pebble Beach last week, I had the opportunity to talk with two-time major champion and NBC talking head, Johnny Miller.

I had so many questions — was Ian Poulter still mad at him for saying he was a poor ballstriker? Was Phil Mickelson upset at the comment he made at the Ryder Cup? Who are the game’s biggest chokers? Will Tiger break Jack Nicklaus’ record?

What was supposed to be a ten-minute chat, quickly turned into twenty-nine very interesting and entertaining minutes. It was fascinating to pick Johnny’s mind about almost anything that crossed my mind, and get a trademark Johnny Miller no-BS answer.

I had also recently read Jaime Diaz’s brilliant, must-read profile of Johnny in this month’s Golf Digest, where Johnny says things like, “Sometimes I wonder how the world would be if there were a million Johnny Millers. I guess some would disagree, but I think it would be a better place.”

I mean, who says that? Johnny does, of course. But after chatting with him, I almost guarantee that he said it with a chuckle. I walked away, thinking, “Wow, Johnny isn’t the arrogant jerk that he sometimes comes across as on TV.” Which is usually the case with most people when you meet them in real life (or just the opposite). Surprisingly, I found it intriguing to listen to him talk about his career. And dare I say — he was endearing.

We were seated at the same table that night, as well. “I gave her some good ammo,” Johnny told the others with a laugh. “She asked me who the biggest choker was!”

During the interview, there was a lot of laughter — not initially, but more with every question. I tried to indicate those times below, but then I realized we were laughing a lot, so it was pointless. Basically, what I’m saying is that I like Johnny Miller (well, I started to really appreciate him as the year progressed when I realized that he was actually interesting to listen to). Since tweeting it last week, I’ve gotten messages from some friends (and followers), saying, “I can’t believe you like Johnny.” Oh, the horror!

Regardless of your opinion, you’re still going to read this (really long, but really interesting) Q&A because you want to hear what Johnny’s got to say. Ready? Here we go!

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WUP: You’re known to use the word choke a lot. In 1990 at the first event where you were in the announcer’s booth, Peter Jacobsen had a tough shot going into the 72nd hole at the Bob Hope…[which he pulled off and two-putted for the win]…

Johnny Miller: [Peter] had like 215 or 220 yards, water on the left and a downhill lie. The hardest shot in golf is to hit it high off the downslope and I said, “This shot is a perfect opportunity to choke on.” I wasn’t saying he was going to choke. All his friends said that I said he was going to choke, but I did not say that.

Because what happens — (Peter’s shot was) like 15 at Augusta. When the guys are on that downslope on 15, the par 5, they try to hit it high and over the water and they hit it fat or thin into the pond. So I was just saying, this is a very difficult shot and it’d be easy to look like something he’d choke on.

That was really the first time anyone had used the word choke on TV. [Laughter] It sure raised a lot of eyebrows that this new guy on TV is going to talk about the choke factor. Which to me, golf is the greatest game there is to see if you got the right stuff or whether you choke or not. I mean, it is the greatest game for gambling and whether you can handle pressure. To not talk about that part of the game is like missing the whole point.

WUP: Who are the biggest chokers?

JM: Well, you sort of look at guys that should win more. I don’t know if you necessarily — it’s hard to tell whether a guy is really a big choker or not. But for a while, believe it or not, Tom Watson was labeled as a choker and so was Payne Stewart. Guys that were having trouble winning — even like Davis Love III — a lot of people say he should have won more.

But of course, Watson got it going and had a great, great, phenomenal career. And Payne had a pretty good career. But he was known like Davis — guys that just couldn’t bring it home.

Nowadays, if you really want an answer to that…

[Ed. note: Johnny reaches to get his wallet and pulls out what appears to be a clipping that lists names of players, and studies it with a serious expression.]

I’d say Paul Casey might be a guy that you could say really should have won way more tournaments by now. He’s just won a couple tournaments in the US, and with his talent, he should have won a dozen by now. He’s a guy you gotta question. I think he won the Shell Houston tournament with a bogey on the playoff hole. So the bottom line is, something’s going on with him. He’s got a lot more talent than he’s winning.

You know, Dustin Johnson you might say he was choking at the US Open. When you start to hit shots you haven’t seen in a long time, that’s usually a sign of choking — you know, getting nervous. Maybe even the decision he made at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits after he soled the club and then tried to hit that crazy shot out of the quote-unquote bunker. That was not a good decision. So a lot of times choking is just the shot selection you try — try to do stuff you shouldn’t do.

WUP: What about someone like Lee Westwood, who some say has trouble closing out majors?

JM: Thing is about Lee — the way he plays in the Ryder Cup, he doesn’t appear to be a choker, but maybe for majors. Everybody has their choking point. The only thing that Tiger in his prime would choke is maybe winning the Grand Slam in the calendar year, but to be honest, he did win a non-[calendar] year Slam.

WUP: There’s a profile of you in Golf Digest this month by Jaime Diaz. You talked about choking and told him that you were suscepitble to choking in your career. Are you relaying some of your experiences when you talk about choking?

JM: I had a nervous trait with putting, but with the lead going into Sunday, I won 74% of the time, which was the highest of anybody until Tiger Woods. It was better than Nicklaus and Trevino, who were third and fourth. So obviously, I knew how to win on Sunday, but in majors, I did choke with my putting.

Even though I won both my majors with the course record on the last day, most of the time on Thursday — that’s when it showed up. For me, I was a weird player in that I was a good Sunday player, but I always had trouble on Thursdays in majors. In the opening round of majors, I was too amped up. I wouldn’t choke tee to green, but I would definitely have a little nervous putting on Thursday.

Everybody’s got a choke factor — it’s just whether it’s the Ryder Cup, a major or whatever. I don’t know why people make such a big deal because everybody does it. I always talked about it in my career and say I choked. [Laughing] But not that many people are as open as I am.

WUP: Well, I think these days people are too wrapped up with their sports psychologists.

JM: Yeah, exactly! That is true. In some cases, people will go see Gio…whatever his name is…Valiante. Those guys just say, if I go through my pre-shot routine and think good thoughts, then it doesn’t matter where I hit it. That’s what they’re taught. So, the outcome is irrelevant compared to the importance of what you do prior to hitting it. Of course in my era, nobody cared about anything except how the shot went.

WUP: What was it like to come out of the booth in 1994 and beat the best player in the world to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am?

When I first came on Tour at the San Diego Open in 1969, I think, or 1970, there was a man by the name of Paul Harney, who lived in Boston and used to play the Tour. He would just play a couple of events a year and then go back home after the winter was over. He won the San Diego Open out of retirement, and I just thought, that would be really cool to be able to play once a year and win. So I stuck it in the back of my pocket.

And of course, I know Pebble Beach as well as anybody. I did my last thing I wanted to do besides win The Masters — I got that win as a grandfather, which was pretty cool at 46. I’m the last grandfather to win in, well,  might be a long time probably. That was cool, especially since my kids got to see it — a lot of them hadn’t seen me win. They had heard about me winning, but they weren’t old enough to know or remember.

WUP: In 1971 you shanked a shot at Pebble Beach in the AT&T. I heard that a few years later when you won the US Open at Oakmont, your one swing thought was: Don’t shank it.

JM: I’m playing with Jack Nicklaus in the final group and on the 16th hole at Pebble, I had this little 7-iron shot. I thought I’d get my knees down through like Tony Lema — who was my childhood hero, San Francisco boy — and cold shanked it. I made a great bogey and then Nicklaus three-putted the next green.

I lost in a playoff, but a lot of people still remember that shot because I never won a tournament — I won like 35 tournaments around the world after that and never once did I not think about it on Sunday afternoon, you’re not going to shank it like you did at the Bing Crosby, are you? That shows how powerful failure under pressure is.

That’s why a lot of people look at Greg Norman and all the scar tissue he’s had. I can’t imagine what’s running through his head when he has the chance to win because he’s had people hole it out of the bunker, hole full shots, chip-ins — you know, crazy shots. It’s hard to get that baggage out of your head.

WUP: There was some uproar that Rickie Fowler was voted as PGA Tour Rookie of the Year instead of Rory McIlroy. Lee Westwood tweeted that Rory was snubbed because he gave up his PGA Tour card. Do you think there’s any legitimacy to that claim?

JM: Well, they probably should have had co-rookies of the year if they were smart. Rory definitely had a great year and a lot of people pick him to be the No. 1 someday.

I don’t know if Rickie Fowler — as much as I like him — will have enough horsepower to beat Rory if they both progress the same. A lot of people are thinking Rickie’s going to be a great player, but not a dominant player. Whereas Rory can be a dominant player.

Anyway, it was a good pick — either one would have been a good pick, but I can see how the European Tour players, which I think have 16 out of the top 30 in the world ranking, probably figure they should get another award up there.

WUP: What do you think of a lot of the top European players not taking up their PGA Tour cards and playing mainly in Europe?

JM: Well, I can understand. The European Tour is a lot more fun than the PGA Tour. There’s a lot of loyalty and you’re playing for national titles. It’s very close and fun. They have a better night life and hang out together. It’s sort of like the little guy against the big guy. They’re trying to get some respect on the European Tour. They have some great players. It’s amazing how many great players are coming out of there. For 30 years, it was just a couple of guys — Seve [Ballesteros], [Bernhard] Langer, [Sandy] Lyle, [Ian] Woosnam, and of course, [Nick] Faldo. But now, you have a whole bunch of them.

WUP: You told Jaime Diaz that your upbringing was similar to Tiger’s. Can you talk more about that?

JM: [Tiger's] father and my father were pretty similar in giving affirmations of being a champion and a great. Of course, his dad was even more over the top in that area than mine, but maybe he was fairly prophetic with his son. It’s very powerful when a father from the heart believes you’re going to be great and then provides the path for you to do it — which my dad did. He basically concentrated all his time and energy, and quit golf when I started showing an interest and started becoming a pretty good player.

I see a lot of similarities with [Tiger's] father and mine. Of course, Tiger went off a path that I never went on, which I feel bad for him. Once the round is over, the similarities totally end. [Laughter]

WUP: What do you think about the swing changes Tiger’s made with Sean Foley?

JM: I think it was a great move going to Foley. What [Tiger] was doing with Hank Haney was just not a good motion for Tiger. I think Foley has him really close to what he used to when he was with Butch Harmon. [Tiger's] going to have a great year and he’s going to win next year. I wouldn’t be surprised — if he gets a win early on the West Coast, like in San Diego or maybe the Match Play, wherever he plays, then he’s going to win four or five times next year.

WUP: Is Tiger going to win a major in 2011?

JM: It kills [Tiger] when he doesn’t win The Masters. It just demoralizes him. Of course, with Phil, everything’s about The Masters.

If Tiger doesn’t win The Masters, then he may not win a major. But if he wins The Masters, then who knows, he may win two or three majors. The Masters is really important for him and his psyche to get back on the major roll because he hasn’t won one in three years or something — well, at Torrey Pines, two-and-a-half years.

WUP: Do you think Tiger will break Jack Nicklaus’ majors record?

JM: I said no in my book. I just thought he might get a bad back, he might get some injuries, he might burn out, he might want more family emphasis or he might get in trouble…it’s definitely derailed him. Next year is really important that he does start winning again. If he doesn’t win a major next year, then I do not believe he’s going to get the record.

WUP: What moment stands out the most for you in 2010?

JM: Well, you gotta look Phil [Mickelson's] win at The Masters. He hit that great shot on 11 from the trees and then the  unbelievable pine straw shot at 13. Even though he didn’t play really well the rest of the year — before or after — that Masters to me was pretty darn interesting and I think it was one of the greatest wins of all time.

And [Louis] Oosthuizen winning at the British — that was something we didn’t know what to do with.

Graeme McDowell with that great win [at the US Open]. Who knew that win was going to make him go from one of the good ol’ boys that everyone wants to hang out with to being a great pressure player. The way he beat Tiger Woods at Sherwood was amazing. He’s the going to contend with even though he doesn’t have a lot of horsepower. I mean, it’s not like he’s a power-hitter, but man, that guy can putt…what he did there was incredible and that’s got to really help his confidence, and man oh man, it was against Tiger — that’s big time.

WUP: Talk about your involvement with Lexus and its Champions for Charity event.

JM: Well, I try to pick really good companies that I represent that have clean images and aren’t out there — I’m about as down the middle as you can get with the morals and being honest in my ways. I try to pick real good quality companies and Callaway and Lexus are about as good as you can get. I liked the guys they had on staff, like [Peter] Jacobsen and [Nick] Watney and then Chi Chi [Rodriguez] and [Mark] O’Meara. But I like what they’re doing with the Champions for Charity.

Giving back is pretty darn important. It’s easy to just keep saving your money, but you know, I have my own foundation for junior golfers and donated a reasonable amount of my money to charity. So I like what they’re doing and I’m happy to be part of it here at Pebble Beach and just sort of caddie for Peter.

I mean, Peter is the man with Toyota and I’m sort of the Johnny-come-lately, literally. I’ve been with Lexus for a couple of years now. It’s just been a really nice event, I love coming to Pebble and I like the excitement these guys have for the game of golf. There are a lot of good vibes on behalf of charity. It’s pretty darn good.

WUP: You told Jaime Diaz that the world would be better with a million Johnny Millers. Can you elaborate on that?

JM: Well, that was sort of an out there comment, but you know, I look at what I stand for and the fact that I’m upfront and honest and people know what they’re going to get. I believe the most important thing is honesty — if you’re honest with yourself and the people around you and honest with the things that you believe are important and actually don’t do the opposite.

For example, if you believe in never being an adulterer and you never are, that’s a good thing. With a Mormon upbringing, it’s a pretty strict religion by most people’s standards, my life has been pretty much down the middle and I’m pretty happy about that.

WUP: You called Ian Poulter a poor ballstriker and he got pretty upset. Have you guys mended fences?

JM: I was just going off the stats. I couldn’t believe it when I read the stats that day — he’s like 157 in Greens in Regulation and I was like, whoa, he’s gotta get that taken care of. He’s a great putter. For some reason, he’s like Jekyll and Hyde overseas. He hits a ton of greens [on the European Tour], and in the US, I’m not sure what he’s doing! Maybe he’s having trouble converting meters to yards. [Laughter] I don’t know what’s going on because he is a good ballstriker, but it doesn’t show up statistically.

All these things seem to motivate these guys. Historically, as an NBC announcer, everybody I’ve sort of gotten on — whether it’s Craig Parry or whatever — they end up winning or having a great week. So they should all hope I get on them! [Laughter]

WUP: I thought one of the funniest lines of the year came from you at the Ryder Cup when you said, “If [Mickelson] couldn’t chip, he’d be selling used cars in San Diego.” [Ed note: We're both laughing.]

JM: I try to throw things out that people don’t expect me to say, but that one was from the heart. I mean, he kept missing the greens. We’re showing him every hole missing the green — and chipping up, par, chipping up, par. So I’m thinking, man, if this guy couldn’t chip, he’d be selling cars! I didn’t mean to say it, but it popped out.

WUP: I heard that it got back to Phil and fired him up for the singles match.

JM: What I heard back — and you never know whether to believe it — was that Amy [Mickelson] didn’t like it, but Phil thought it was pretty funny. Phil knows that I’ve got a job to do. The thing about Phil is that he sees the big picture. I’ve been complimentary to Phil, but also hard on Phil. He makes a lot of crazy decisions.

I told Phil that he’s the greatest guy in the world to announce with because he does stuff that’s totally nutty and it gives me lot of things to talk about. So I said, thanks for doing that. He’s also one of the most interesting guys to watch because he does play so aggressively and without fear. I mean, he’s won a lot of tournaments — almost 40 now.

WUP: With the PGA Tour’s TV contracts up in 2012, negotiations are going to be taking place next year. What do you think the deal will look like and how important is it for Tiger to play well?

JM: Let’s put it this way — they [renegotiate] every five years, and ten years ago or twelve, thirteen, Tiger comes on the scene, wins The Masters by 12 and [they sign a] huge TV contract. Five years later, Tiger’s winning everything in ’01 or ’02 and then in ’05 or ’06, he’s still winning everything.

Maybe he’ll come alive again and save the Tour again, but basically, Tiger’s timing has been amazing with the Tour being able to negotiate and get a good price for TV. Right now,  I’ll tell you if Tiger doesn’t play well and with Phil getting older, Vijay going down basically, Kenny Perry sort of going down — a lot of guys that are popular — their careers are ending.

You’ve got some new guys. By the time I was 28, I’d already won like 15 tournaments. These guys have won like two and everybody’s getting all excited. I’m thinking, you know, these guys are good players, but they’ve only won a couple of times. Let’s get somebody like Lanny Wadkins or Jerry Pate that comes out and kicks butt right away, wins a major or two and wins a bunch of tournaments like we used to do.

All those guys in our era used to come out — in fact, your best golf was up until you were 27. After that, it was like hang on to your shorts. Nowadays, it seems like the guys are more in their 30s. They always talk about these great young players, but I don’t see the young players like the Crenshaws and Kites. I don’t see too many of those. Rory’s good, Rickie’s good and Dustin’s good. But it’s not like they’re kicking rear. They’re great golfers, but they’re not winning a lot.

WUP: Do you think that’s because there’s more competition now?

JM: No. Everybody said that nobody will win like Jack [Nicklaus] did. Well, here comes Tiger. The bottom line is you can win if you’re special. I think the guys now — the Tour is so great, the food is great, the travel is great, private jets. This year there were 13 guys making $3 million or more off the Tour, not counting endorsements. There are so many guys making so much money and they’re so comfortable. I just don’t think they’re quite as motivated to win. I mean, it’s great finishing third — WOW!

WUP: Right, you get third and you win $500,000. Are the guys getting complacent?

JM: I don’t think it’s complacency. You’re just so excited to be winning that kind of money. In college you have no money and then all of a sudden you finish 10th, you get $100,000 and it’s like, “This is the greatest!”

WUP: Do you think the money is hurting the game?

JM: There aren’t enough guys that play like Phil — I guess that’s what I’m trying to say — guys that are really aggressive. Bubba Watson is. Dustin Johnson is. A lot of guys play percentage golf and it’s pretty boring and you’re not going to win a lot. My dad said, “If you want to be the best, you gotta be willing to try shots that they other guys aren’t willing to try.”

When you play a safe shot off the tee with a 3-iron or a 3-wood and then go 30 feet left of the hole because you don’t want to challenge the bunkers, unless you make the 30-footer, you’re not going to win.

So I’d like to see guys like Lenny Wadkins and Jerry Pate and those young guys that used to fire at all the flags — myself included — you know, we weren’t afraid to challenge the flag more often, otherwise you’re not going to win very often.

WUP: Why do you think more players aren’t playing more aggressively these days?

JM: It’s percentage golf. But if you do that, you’re just going to be another one of the players — unless you make a lot of 30-footers.

WUP: Well, of those young players, who do you think is going to win the most majors? Rory? Rickie? Ryo? Dustin? AK?

JM: Maybe Dustin because he already should have won two. He can manhandle the course and he’s pretty fearless and he likes to gamble against Phil. Usually the gamblers, like Raymond Floyd and Phil, they like to put themselves on the line and that’s a good sign. They’re confrontational players versus non-confrontational, percentage golfers.

I don’t know…I’m not positive how smart [Dustin's] golfing IQ is. I don’t know him that well. Let’s just keep it at that.

The guys that are most consistent in golf have no clue what they do. Freddie Couples had no clue how to swing a golf club — he just did it. Billy Casper had very few keys. Bruce Lietzke, very few keys. I think Dustin — his wrist is like that [Ed. note: Johnny demonstrates Dustin's position] at the top, but that’s just his swing and he’ll probably never touch it. Maybe he’ll win majors because he can take apart a course.

And maybe Bubba Watson if he quit hooking or slicing it so much. I wish he’d hook or slice it 10 feet, instead of 50 feet.

WUP: Well, Bubba sure can work the ball!

JM: I always say, you never want to hit a shot that if it goes straight, you’re in trouble. Bubba will aim OB or in the water hazard, and he’ll hook it waaaay around, but if it goes straight, he’s in the water. So I’d like to see him change that because he’s got a lot of talent.

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Thanks again, Johnny (and Lexus for setting it up)!