By Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Johnny Miller is saying goodbye.
And he’s done so without offending any players on the PGA Tour. That’s different.
Kidding, kidding. Mostly.
Miller, 71, is retiring from the NBC booth Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, passing the analyst microphone to Paul Azinger, another straight-shooting former player. Azinger will do fine, but let’s be clear: Miller is the best golf analyst ever, and one of the most influential analysts in any sport.
“I think he’s very influential, beyond golf,” Dan Hicks, Miller’s NBC broadcast partner, said Friday. “He opened a lot of doors for other broadcasters to kind of tell it like it is.”
Indeed, when you hear John McEnroe blast a tennis player — honestly but forthrightly — or Charles Barkley take an NBA player to task or Cris Collinsworth chastise an NFL star for a mistake, in some ways you can thank Miller.
Or, blame him. Either way is fine with him.
“You want to be the most-popular announcer in your sport, but you also want to be one of the least popular,” Miller said. “There’s no fence-riding. Elicit a response. That’s what they’re looking for.”
And that’s what he’s given them, for nearly 30 years. It’s a technique he describes like this: “I take off their clothes, but I leave their underwear on.”
Miller was, of course, a great player, winner of two majors — including the 1973 U.S. Open; his final-round 63 is the stuff of legend.
He retired from the game (he’s a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame), and began working for NBC in 1990. And he pulled no punches from the start. He didn’t know any other way to do it.
“I did that when I talked about my own game,” he said. “I would almost brag when I was doing great, and I’d say I choked when I didn’t. So it was just an extension of how I viewed golf. It wasn’t something I made up. It wasn’t like I was trying to be some controversial announcer. I was just being who I was. I think that’s why the public liked me. They knew I wasn’t faking it.”
You have to understand, professional golf was — and, in many ways, still is — the ultimate good-’ol-boys club, a tight-lipped fraternity. PGA Tour players simply weren’t accustomed to being called out on their mistakes, their shanks, their chokes, their lip-out putts.
Enter Miller. This is the guy who once said of Phil Mickelson, “If he couldn’t chip, he’d be selling cars in San Diego.” Mickelson reportedly was not amused.
Too bad. Everyone else was. And in truth, most of Miller’s comments weren’t a lot different than what you’ve probably said a million times watching a tournament from your couch. But when his were broadcast to millions of people, and the people he was talking about haven’t heard the word “no” in years, much less honest criticism of their play, well, you’re going to make some people angry. Not that Miller worried much about that.
“I think the players knew, if they really analyzed what I said, they knew I was coming from an area of knowledge, and also saying what I really saw,” Miller said. “I mean, if the guy is hitting nothing but fades and hasn’t hit a duck hook in two years, and he starts duck-hooking the last three holes, he might be choking, right? You’ve got to say that. The public wants that. They want to hear the truth.”
Sometimes, even by his own acknowledgment, Miller went too far. He once said of Rocco Mediate, fighting out the 2008 U.S. Open with Tiger Woods, “He looks more like the guy who cleans Tiger’s swimming pool.” Miller apologized, saying he was referring to Mediate’s blue-collar work ethic.
Miller said he won’t know for sure how much he’ll miss his gig until the PGA Tour begins its swing through tournaments in Florida, when NBC typically begins its season. (The network is broadcasting the Phoenix Open this year because the Super Bowl is on CBS, which usually covers it.)
“He’s in the very, very small, select group of broadcasters who changed the way the sport was done,” Hicks said. “He changed the landscape. It’s not only the end of an era in golf broadcasting, it’s the end of the career of one of the greatest broadcasters, period.”
And now he’s done.
“My favorite saying at home is, ‘OK, that’s enough of that.’” Miller said. “Well, that’s where I am right now. That’s enough of this.”
Reach Goodykoontz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.