Golf on TV: Was Johnny Miller really TV’s Mr. Nice Guy?

Johnny Miller stands on the 18th green of the Silverado Resort North Course during the trophy presentation of the Safeway Open PGA golf tournament Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Golf on TV: Was Johnny Miller really TV’s Mr. Nice Guy?

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Golf on TV: Was Johnny Miller really TV’s Mr. Nice Guy?

NBC’s Johnny Miller often has been portrayed as the bête noire of PGA Tour players because of his cutting commentary over nearly three decades.

That caricature always has been more myth than reality. For whatever reason, golf analysts, even one with Miller’s playing pedigree and stature at NBC, are reluctant to voice even the most tepid criticisms of Tour players. That’s why someone such as Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee stands out in the crowd; he lacks Miller’s playing résumé, but he’s willing to point out flaws in a player’s game, then back it up with data.

Nevertheless, Miller’s reputation as someone willing to speak frankly endures. During a recent conference call to discuss his retirement, Miller was asked if he regretted any comments he made during his career. Miller referenced his “crappy comment” at the 1999 Ryder Cup that Justin Leonard “should be home watching on TV, he’s playing so bad.” (Leonard was 0-1-3 in those matches.) Miller said he apologized to Leonard shortly after making the comment.

In golf’s cozy little universe, that comment seems to have the nuclear half-life of uranium. Over the years, it inevitably has been mentioned in stories about Miller, and I’ve occasionally received emails about Miller from Golfweek readers who cited that comment approvingly.

I always make the same point: If we have to keep citing a remark Miller made nearly two decades ago, perhaps he wasn’t as edgy as his reputation would suggest.

Miller, in fact, said that he pulled some punches as recently as the Ryder Cup in September because “I knew I was retiring soon.” Most of the American players were unfamiliar with the host course, Le Golf National, and Miller said he didn’t think they prepared adequately during practice rounds.

“I think the fact that the U.S. was playing nine holes a day, and those (European) guys played the (French) Open every year, and I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? Nine holes a day? What else do you got to do but play?’” Miller said during his conference call. “I was fairly upset at that, because Europe set up that golf course totally unlike the Americans had ever played. It was like (an) old U.S. Open. … The bomb-and-gouge just doesn’t work on those kind of courses.”

That’s a legitimate criticism and one that easily could have been documented to support Miller’s argument. It’s not an ad hominem attack on specific players, and his status as golf’s most prominent TV analyst afforded him the credibility to state that argument. It’s exactly the sort of thing Miller is paid to say. It could have sparked an interesting conversation among the NBC crew. And yet Miller didn’t say it during the live coverage.

It was a missed opportunity. It also helps explain why we find ourselves reminiscing about an off-hand comment Miller made two decades ago rather than a sharp critique he offered a month ago. Gwk

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