ORLANDO – Something was bothering me as I watched NBC’s coverage of the Valspar Championship last week, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I saw third-round coverage of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It was Johnny Miller’s first day back in the booth this season, and Miller was doing what he sometimes does – stirring things up. He doesn’t do it as often or as well as he used to, but he still has something left in the tank.
For example, he called out Rory McIlroy for, in Miller’s view, not living up to his potential in recent years.
“This is probably a controversial comment, but I think if (McIlroy) had never gone to a gym, he would have played way better the last five years,” Miller said. “Because he was so good, he was phenomenal, and now he’s gotten so ripped. I’m not sure in golf you need to be ripped.”
That view might underscore a generational shift in thinking between Miller and today’s young stars, who rarely miss a day in the gym. But at least Miller was willing, as usual, to say something provocative that challenged one of the game’s biggest stars.
Later, he expressed his frustration with Bryson DeChambeau’s dawdling and indecision before his second shot into 18. It struck me as Miller at his best, which we don’t see as much these days. He captured the frustration that I (and I suspect many other viewers) felt, called out DeChambeau, but did so in a measured, thoughtful manner.
“This is out of control, how many times he has pulled that (yardage) book out already,” Miller said. “Two different pages, by the way. You know, they say you play the game of golf. He does not play the game of golf. He works it, analyzes it, takes it apart – but not really playing. I think that sometimes people try to get so good that they forget to have a little instinct, more feel. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s just takes forever to hit this shot.”
No one would plausibly suggest Miller is as interesting or engaged in the coverage as he was earlier in his NBC career. He’s still given to saying things such as, “Three is a lot different than two, folks,” after Henrik Stenson missed a birdie opportunity and a chance for a three-shot lead. And he still has a tendency to make early, and wrong, calls, such as saying, “He likes it,” after Tiger Woods hit his tee shot on No. 14, only to watch it miss the green to the right. (Miller and his colleagues aren’t helped in this regard by the fact NBC still is using shot-tracing technology far too sparingly.)
Still, Miller’s return was a reminder of the value of having a centerpiece to anchor the live coverage. The analogy that came to mind is that NBC without Miller is a little like the old “Prairie Home Companion” series without Garrison Keillor. You might appreciate some of the other cast members, but none of them are terribly distinctive.
That’s not to suggest Miller is irreplaceable, though I think it’s pretty clear that his long-term replacement is not currently on the NBC crew. But it is a reminder that when Miller does retire, NBC will have a tall task in finding the right person to fill his seat. Gwk