Johnny Miller is still taking dead aim at the U.S. Open.
All these years after his 63 in the final round won at Oakmont in 1973, Miller’s enthusiasm for the U.S. Open hasn’t dulled.
The NBC analyst’s eagerness to call this year’s U.S. Open is ratcheted up with his favorite championship being played at the home course where he grew up. His affection for the event and The Olympic Club’s Lake Course outside San Francisco doubles his anticipation of the U.S. Open’s start in three weeks.
“I could cover the U.S. Open in June from my bedroom in Utah, and you guys wouldn’t notice,” Miller said Thursday in a media conference call. “I know the course so well.”
Fifty-one years ago, Miller was made the first “merit” member of The Olympic Club. He was 14.
“The first [junior] whose father wasn’t a member of the club,” Miller said. “It was a big break for me.”
Miller was signed up to be a caddie with the U.S. Open coming to Olympic in 1966 when he was 19, but he qualified for the championship instead. He played with Lee Trevino in the first two rounds and Jack Nicklaus in the third round and ended up tying for eighth, winning low-amateur honors.
“Pretty naive, but I wasn’t overly impressed that I finished eighth, believe it or not,” Miller said.
With all his course knowledge, Miller said he thought he should have won. When the U.S. Open returned to Olympic in 1987, Miller was past his prime and missed the cut.
Miller credits his famed iron play to his training at Olympic, where sidehill, downhill and uphill lies required precision ball striking. He learned to work the ball hitting fades and cuts off lies that didn’t always fit the shape of those shots.
“The course pushed me the way it does,” Miller said. “When I went on Tour, I thought, `Wow, these courses are huge they have out here.’ So that was really important, to basically train running up a mountain, versus flat ground. When I went on Tour, I thought everything was flat ground after playing the mountain, the super tough course Olympic Club was.”
Miller can’t wait to see how today’s best players navigate the layout.
On Olympic’s key holes: “The real standout thing about the U.S. Open at Olympic Club is going to be the first six holes. With No. 1 being a par 4, it's probably the hardest opening six holes, maybe, in the history of major championship golf, with no wind. They are brutal holes. They are banked the wrong way. So you need to hit cuts, and you need to hit draws, and you've got some wind coming over the top of the trees. But with No. 1 being a four par, that opening run is just absolutely amazing. The big story is going to be, really, how well you do on the first six holes. I think the field is going to average 3 over par through (No.) 6, so they are going to have to somehow play great golf, not that the holes coming in after 6 are that easy, because they aren't.”
On players whose games fit Olympic: “Rory is a good pick . . . Jason Dufner is a really good pick. Guys that can hit the ball well, hit the greens in regulation, and hit the ball well like Jason Dufner, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Rory. Those are some of the really good picks, guys that hit a lot of greens in regulation. With those tiny greens, it's tough to get the balls up and in with the slopes on the greens, and you’ve got to miss it on the proper side. One thing about Tiger, he knows Olympic Club, and it would not surprise me to see him, if he could somehow get his game together.”
On the temperament required to tame Olympic: “Open players are usually guys that hardly have a pulse. You look at Scott Simpson year ’round, he's a very pleasant guy, but he's not an up-and-down guy mood wise. Emotionally, same with Lee Janzen. You look at [winners at Olympic Club] – I don't know Jack Fleck as well – Billy Casper, of course, is in that category. You hardly get a pulse, a lot like Jason Dufner, who is playing so well right now. He fits right into the U.S. Open mold of a guy who has learned to temper his emotions totally, like Ben Hogan did, and Jack Nicklaus did. Those are the guys that seem to flourish in a U.S. Open, not the flamboyant types that are smiling and giving gestures and that kind of thing.”
On evolving U.S. Open setups: “The only thing that players have in their favor, if you call it favor, is the rough is not like the rough was in my era. These new players, they have no idea what U.S. Open rough was. You look at the picture of Hogan in '55, it took him three swings to get back to the fairway on 18. I mean, these guys are pampered. At Winged Foot, when Irwin was 7 over and won there, if you hit a hundred balls in the rough, the longest you could average it out of the rough was about 75 yards, hitting the hardest shot you could hit, with all your might. So, these guys have no clue what rough is. They lost that word. They don't even know what the word ‘rough’ is, in my opinion.”
More on USGA setups: “The Open is supposed to be a tough test. Congressional, I was a little scared for the USGA, that somebody would do what Rory did last year, with the scoring. They were opening it up, to really getting well under par, and you know, that just wasn't the U.S. Open all those years. I started watching the Open in '55, when I was a kid, an 8-year-old, and the Open was supposed to be different than any other test, with possibly the British Open being a brother to that. But the new thinking, I don't know why the USGA went that direction.”