19th Hole: Johnny Miller leaves nothing in bag as he steps down from TV tower for last time

DUBLIN, OHIO - JUNE 01: Johnny Miller smiles during a presentation naming him the 2016 tournament honoree at practice for the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide at Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 1, 2016 in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR) Chris Condon/PGA Tour

19th Hole: Johnny Miller leaves nothing in bag as he steps down from TV tower for last time

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19th Hole: Johnny Miller leaves nothing in bag as he steps down from TV tower for last time

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It’s testament to Johnny Miller’s enduring appeal that he’ll be as much the focus during his final event in the booth for NBC Sports as he was during his first.

That was 29 years ago this month at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and from the beginning Miller came off the top rope. Most fans don’t remember Peter Jacobsen won that week, but plenty recall Miller musing aloud on whether he would choke, a startling departure in a sport where commentary is often a masterclass in hagiography and excuse-making. Even guys at home weren’t safe from Miller’s missiles.

Mike Ditka competed in the pro-am, and when NBC showed footage of Coach ranting on the sidelines of a game, Miller likened his histrionics to Curtis Strange after a three-putt. Watching from his brother’s couch, Strange was angered by what he saw as a slap below the Sansabelt. “Now I laugh. At the time I was really pissed off,” he admitted. “He’s been good for the game. He’s been good for TV. A lot of people like him, but there’s some that don’t.”

Those who don’t number more than a few players, whose tastes in announcers are predictably vanilla.

It’s fitting that the gauzy goodbye to Miller will come in Phoenix, where he earned the “Desert Fox” moniker. He won back-to-back titles there in 1974-75, the latter by 14 strokes . He indisputably was the best in the world. But it was a different tournament, in a different town and a different era, that inoculated Miller from the criticism of thin-skinned Tour players eager to dismiss him as just another microphone jockey who had forgotten what it was like trying to play for a living.

Miller was almost 47 years old in February 1994 when he went to Pebble Beach for the AT&T National Pro-Am. It was just his fifth event since entering the booth. He was far removed from the glory days of plaid bell bottoms and persimmon drivers. He hadn’t won in seven years and had just a single victory in 11 years. He was crippled with putting yips, and everyone knew it.

And yet Miller beat ’em all one last time. He needed to two-putt from 20 feet for the win. Standing over the first putt he told himself, “Don’t hit it fat!” He closed his eyes on the second one, a short tap-in that gave Miller his 25th PGA Tour title.

Brad Faxon, now an announcer for Fox Sports, finished nine shots behind Miller that week. “I remember being so impressed that he could be in contention at his age having been in the booth for so long and not practicing,” he said. “Incredible.”

Brandel Chamblee missed the cut and left Pebble Beach feeling more disgusted than awestruck. “It’s the only time I ever left an event and felt embarrassed to be a Tour player,” the Golf Channel analyst recalled. “He came out of the booth, past his prime, with the yips, and still beat us.”

Years later Chamblee ran into Miller at a party at Dan Quayle’s house. He brought up the Pebble victory. “Johnny said that it didn’t happen by accident,” according to Chamblee. “When he first went in the booth, he thought it would be cool to pop out and win, that it was a goal of his to do just that. Crazy goal, but I never forgot that!”

It seems so improbable now, the idea of an analyst heaving off his headset, loosening his tie, lacing up his spikes and whupping on the kids again. Could it happen?

I asked Paul Azinger, who will succeed Miller in NBC’s high chair. Azinger the player once took exception to his predecessor’s commentary and called him a “moron.” Azinger the broadcaster is Miller Lite, a flinty analyst unafraid of bruising egos. “I seriously doubt that will ever be done again,” he said. “Remarkable achievement.”

Strange agrees: “People go the booth for a reason – your game sucks! If someone’s going to leave the booth and win, it’s an anomaly.”

“One of the many things I love about Johnny is that he’s fearless in the way he approached the game, both as a player and as a commentator,” said Chamblee, who insisted that win is the most underrated achievement in golf. “That event was the best of both those worlds.”

After the victory a quarter-century ago, Miller went back to his chair. He only played another six Tour events, logging four missed cuts and two WDs. Not that it mattered. Johnny Miller left then with nothing else to prove. He leaves his tower on the same terms. Gwk

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