NEWPORT, Wales – You can count on Johnny Miller to be impartial at the Ryder Cup as an analyst for NBC Sports.
American or European, he can get under anyone’s skin.
As great as he was as a player – Miller will tell you that himself – he only played in the Ryder Cup twice. Still, he has managed to become a big part of the event through commentary that is always blunt, sometimes shocking, usually accurate.
Even some of his victims agree with that.
“I like a lot of what he does,” Justin Leonard said last week. “It can be a little too critical. I’m sure most guys on tour would say the same thing. We don’t want anyone saying we choked. We know we did. We just don’t want to hear anyone else say we did.”
Leonard says he is not a “Johnny basher,” even though few other player were bashed worse.
“My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television,” Miller blurted out in 1999 when Leonard and Hal Sutton were losing a fourballs match Saturday afternoon at Brookline.
That remains among the most famous of the “Johnny moments,” and there have been plenty over the years. Like the time he said Craig Parry’s swing would make Ben Hogan puke. And remember, Miller is the first analyst to introduce the word “choke” into the golf broadcast, a word players don’t even like hearing in conversation.
And there might be plenty of that going on this week at Celtic Manor.
Miller will be in the booth for the 10th straight Ryder Cup, and he began warming up last week during a conference call. That’s when he said Tiger Woods hasn’t been able to lead the team, neither has Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk has been “less than so-so.”
It’s the Miller way. It’s all he knows.
“Not a lot of announcers are willing to let it go,” Miller said. “When you let it go, like in car racing when you push down on the accelerator, you’re going to spin out a few times. The bottom line is I’m not a careful announcer. If I have a legacy when I retire, it’s that I really was the first announcer willing to say a few things that make people go, ‘Wow.”’
Ian Poulter didn’t exactly say, “Wow.” He used a British euphemism that can’t be repeated here.
Poulter was finishing up a 69 in the third round of the BMW Championship to stay in contention when Miller noted, “You know, he’s not a very good ball-striker.”
The spunky Englishman fought back on Twitter.
– “Johnny Miller saying today I wasn’t a good ball striker I guess I do alright for a duffer then. He talks such (nonsense) at times.”
– “I will have to try and win a couple of majors like him and see if I can change his mind until then I’m happy being a overrated duffer.”
Then came another tweet, with Poulter suggesting that Miller “choke on this.” He included a link to the European Tour website that showed Poulter at No. 2 in the greens in regulation.
The last laugh?
Poulter has played only 12 rounds on the European Tour. In 49 rounds on the PGA Tour, he ranks 171st.
“Everybody wants to be praised,” Miller said, explaining why players seem to have such thin skin. “You can’t say every shot is great. If a player gets four compliments and one criticism, they don’t remember the positive stuff I say. I’ve never had a player say, ‘Thanks for saying I was a heck of a sand play.’ My announcing is real.”
Miller says he has been that way his entire career – on the course and in the booth.
He wonders if blunt criticism of himself as a player kept him from winning more than 25 times, along with two majors. One of those majors was the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, which everyone knows about because Miller always talks about it. He was the first player to shoot 63 in a major.
“I was tough on myself, maybe to a fault,” Miller said. “And maybe I was too complimentary and too cocky when I had it going. I’m very honest. I’m not bragging. That’s just the way I am. I would be the first one to tell you I was choking. I also would be the first one to tell you how great I was playing.”
Miller realizes he has annoyed players. That’s OK. He is a peer on the golf course. He’s not a friend in the booth.
“There’s a certain respect I give them and they give me,” he said. “They know I have a good record and I know what I’m talking about. It’s not my job to be overly chummy. But nobody on tour shuns me. If I see someone coming, I don’t have to make a hard left.”
That doesn’t mean he’s afraid to apologize.
He ran into Leonard in Dallas a few weeks after that 1999 Ryder Cup, and Miller told him he went over the line. Johnny being Johnny, he’s starting to wonder if his criticism is now a badge of honor.
Remember, the day after Miller said Leonard should have stayed home, the Texan won the decisive match by making one of the most famous shots in Ryder Cup history, a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. And not long after his criticism of Parry’s swing at Doral, the Australian holed a 6-iron for eagle to win in a sudden-death playoff.
“It seems like when I do cross the line, that guy becomes a hero that week,” Miller said. “Maybe these guys should be looking forward to me ripping them.”