SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – “Just another telecast, right?”
Johnny Miller is chuckling to himself. It’s 12:58 p.m. local time, and he’s about to call golf one final time, during this special Saturday sendoff at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
All week he had been steeling himself for the emotion of the three-hour telecast, and this morning the 71-year-old tried to find some semblance of normalcy in his routine. The last to arrive at 10:20, Miller rolled his suitcase through the TV compound and plopped down on the leather couch in the trailer. To his right sat his successor, Paul Azinger, watching the early-round coverage. Miller fished through his NBC Sports backpack for his black-rimmed glasses and went to work, like he’s done for 354 prior events: flipping through his yardage book; marking hole locations with a red Sharpie; highlighting runoff areas, fall lines and carry distances. He grabbed a thick white binder and removed all of the bio sheets of the players in contention; the statistical minutiae was hard to remember. Rarely did he glance at the TV screen in front of him, despite countless mentions.
“I don’t feel much of anything,” he said between bites of salmon. “I’m trying to make sure I do a good job. I’m trying to honor the tournament first and worry about me at the end.”
But now they’re only two minutes from air, and no, sorry, this won’t be just another telecast. How could it? It’s the end of an era. In the truck they’ve queued up tributes and special features and teary goodbyes for the most influential golf broadcaster in history. The cozy booth soon will be packed with about 20 crew members, family and friends. More than a million people will tune in to see if Johnny has saved his best quips for last.
“One minute!” calls stage manager Kathy Noce, but Miller doesn’t flinch. He continues rifling through his notes, placing the large printouts of the holes directly in front of him, the bios to his right, next to a box of tissues and a fresh can of Easy Cheese.
He shields his eyes from the bright lights and scans the digital leaderboard one last time.
Miller turns to his left and bumps fists with longtime broadcaster partner Dan Hicks.
“All right,” Miller says, sinking into his chair.
He glances down at his lap.
He squints into the lights.
He pivots to the camera and smirks.
The red light flips on.
* * *
THIS SECOND ACT NEARLY ended as soon as it started.
A broadcasting career? Miller had no desire. He was a flag-hunting Hall of Fame player, first and always, but by late 1989 the putting yips had overtaken his career and sent him into early retirement, at age 42. Then Lee Trevino announced that he was leaving the NBC booth for the senior tour, and a network executive asked Miller if he’d be interested in the lead-analyst job. He said no but was quickly overruled by his wife, Linda, who suggested that it wouldn’t hurt to have a steady paycheck.
Miller debuted at the 1990 Bob Hope Classic but quit after the first day. Hated it, he said. Producers had to persuade him just to work through the weekend. Over the next few days he established his voice, and by Sunday, he says, “I was already feeling my oats.” And leaving his mark.
As tournament leader Peter Jacobsen set up over a 230-yard shot into the 18th green, with a downhill lie and water left, Miller blurted out: “This is absolutely the easiest shot to choke I’ve ever seen in my life.” Viewers gasped. Jacobsen was furious with him for months.
“About every other telecast I was like, I think I’m going to quit,” Miller said in a quiet moment last week. “The way I announced, it wasn’t a smooth thing. I was doing stuff that people didn’t really understand, that they weren’t used to, like, Why don’t you just be sweet there? But when I was talking about my own game in front of people, I’d say that I gagged or hit a terrible shot. It wasn’t anything new. I wasn’t doing it to hurt anybody’s feelings. That’s just how I viewed the game.”
He almost quit again after the 1991 Ryder Cup. After Azinger double-crossed his approach wide left on 17, Miller called it how he saw it: “Terrible shot.” That comment made its way back to Azinger, and the next morning, in large font on A-1 of the Charleston, S.C., newspaper, came his fiery rebuttal: “MILLER IS THE BIGGEST MORON IN THE BOOTH.”
Someone cut out the headline, taped it to the wall of the TV trailer and, as a joke, added an extra “M” to the headline, so it read: BIGGEST MORMON IN THE BOOTH. Miller was so hurt that during a company outing the next day at Kiawah, he told colleague Mark Rolfing that he was done. It became such a crisis that then-NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol hopped a late flight to San Francisco to convince him to stay onboard. Eventually Miller found his groove, his uncompromising style garnering him eight Emmy nominations as the game’s preeminent analyst.
Retirement crossed his mind again over the past decade, not because of any cruel headlines or player blowback but rather because of the pull of home, his six children and now 24 grandkids. As early as 2008, Ebersol would have a sinking feeling every time Miller’s number popped up on his caller ID, believing that this was the call to inform him that he was finished for good. Golf Channel president Mike McCarley soon inherited that same dread, until the definitive call last fall.
That’s how they all ended up here, in a ballroom at the JW Marriott in Scottsdale, where about 75 friends, family and colleagues gathered last Thursday for Miller’s farewell party, the celebration of an unparalleled career he never could have imagined 29 years ago.
Most everyone integral to Miller’s success spoke. Producer Tommy Roy praised him for rarely using the same word twice, and how he even invented a few of his own, from “Dolly Partons” to describe the mounds near TPC Sawgrass’ 18th green to a “muff-burger” in the rough to “dingle-dangles” … the meaning of which is still uncertain. They presented him with an NBC Sports golf bag, his name emblazoned on the front panel; Notah Begay III gave him a Teeless Driver. Hicks handed him a goodie bag with all of his 18th-tower essentials: Sharpies, canned tuna, gaffer tape and, of course, Easy Cheese, which he mainlined during telecasts. “May you never run out of Cheese Whiz,” Hicks said, raising his can.
When it finally came time for Miller to say a few words, he began by poking fun at emcee Jimmy Roberts – “This is Danny DeVito’s podium, I guess” – and ended shortly thereafter in tears.
More stirring reflections would follow over the next 24 hours, as he made the rounds during one last media blitz. At each stop he offered the same rationale for stepping away now – that 50 years on the road is enough, and that he wanted to spend however many years he has left with his family. “I want to be a great grandpa,” he said. “That’s what I want.”
It’s just before noon when Miller drives himself to the TV tower behind TPC Scottsdale’s 18th tee. Saturday at the Phoenix Open is the wildest day on the golf calendar, and what should have been a short ride instead takes more than 10 minutes, as he crawls past bars with thumping bass, saluting those sober enough to recognize him.
He climbs the stairs to the tower and finds Hicks working in the back, scribbling notes under a desk lamp. They greet each other warmly.
“We’re gonna have you take a lot of the meat today,” Miller says. “I’ll just react to you.”
They briefly rehearse the open and snap a selfie before Miller heads into the corner to commence his final prep, head down, reading glasses on.
At 12:52 p.m., it’s time for the announcer shift change. Miller is wearing a company-issued light-green polo, black slacks and slip-on shoes. He wipes his face with a paper towel and brushes his hair while an assistant briskly tapes index cards on the inside of the desk, so they’re easily accessible.
“I don’t have any makeup on,” Miller groans, adjusting his headset. But then he decides that’s probably best, anyway.
“I might get weepy toward the end.”
* * *
THE FIRST THING YOU notice watching the telecast in person is how little Miller actually appears on camera – no more than 10 times, and mostly just to capture his reaction to the taped tributes.
Before they’re about to send it to the booth, it’s organized chaos: Hicks is handed last-minute instructions; the lights turn on; the crew scrambles into position; Miller slides closer to his partner; and the stage manager reminds all of the extra bodies here to remain perfectly still, since the wobbly floor could shake the camera. Most of the day, though, Miller reclines in his leather chair, right hand pressed against his mouth, eyes glued to the LG monitor about 5 feet away.
Miller doesn’t utter a word until eight minutes into the show, and he doesn’t disappoint. Watching Justin Thomas blow a par putt past the hole on No. 9, Miller unleashes his first zinger: “Wow, that wasn’t even close!”
Hicks is responsible for calling certain holes, so he’s free to let his concentration lapse. But Miller’s microphone is always open, allowing him to interject with short riffs that usually hit the lead-analyst trifecta: original, informative and entertaining.
“He won because the other guys hit it in the water more than he did.”
“That sound is just different; he’s mashing the ball.”
“That was about as good as the food in Scotland.”
True, all of it, and it’s the kind of famously frank talk that has come to define Miller as much as his Sunday 63 at Oakmont – the unfiltered, unapologetic analyst who dispenses wisdom and wisecracks in equal measure.
Ask any TV wonk, and Miller’s genius comes in his delivery. There’s no syrupiness; it’s direct, concise, incisive. That’s why his analysis often lands with the power of a sledgehammer – there’s no frills or fluff to soften the blow. It’s just brutal honesty, 10 seconds at a time. And then it’s on to the next shot.
Throughout his three decades in the booth, Miller spared neither superstars nor journeymen. He once said Justin Leonard would be better off watching the Ryder Cup at home. He once said Craig Parry’s swing would make Ben Hogan puke. He once said Phil Mickelson would be selling cars in San Diego if he weren’t such a good putter … and that Leonard Thompson swung like he had something stuck up his rear … and that Rocco Mediate looked like the guy who cleaned Tiger Woods’ pool.
The provocative commentary turned off some fans at home and didn’t endear Miller to those in the locker room, many of whom thought he was a bitter know-it-all lobbing grenades from above. Televised sports is rife with pros-turned-broadcasters who offer platitudes and coddle the athletes they cover. Miller never intended to be malicious; his mantra was accuracy, truth and honesty will always prevail.
“I like to say that I take off their clothes, but I leave their underwear on,” Miller says.
If he ever thought he crossed the line on-air, he took two fingers and zipped his mouth shut. That was his cue to change the subject, even if a stunned Hicks sometimes needed 15 seconds of silence to recover.
Early in this farewell telecast, Hicks tries to goad Miller into a few more golf spike-in-mouth moments – “We know you’ve been holding back for 29 years, so have at it!” – but the opportunity for some vintage Johnny candor never presents itself. This is a day of celebration, after all, and sprinkled throughout the broadcast are tributes from Tour legends and past commissioners, NBC colleagues and other notable broadcasters, even a taped message from President Trump. They show a highlight package of the “Desert Fox” knocking down flagsticks in the ’70s. They run through his list of tournaments covered, a reminder for a younger generation that he’s been broadcasting longer than nearly half of the top 10 players in the world have been alive. They serenade him with a song from Jacobsen – the player synonymous with Miller’s first “choke” call, back in 1990 – called “I’m Gonna Miss Johnny Miller.”
He appears to enjoy the blend of nostalgia and live action, and he’s largely held his emotions in check, but at the top of the hour he starts eying the clock. Azinger has settled into a quiet spot in the back of the tower, to watch the end of a legendary career.
Miller peers at his watch and, off camera, gives Azinger a polite wave.
It’s 3:13 p.m., and Miller quickly does the math.
The show is almost over.
* * *
THE FINAL GROUPS ARE finishing up, and so David Feherty and Gary Koch look directly into their cameras and thank Miller for all of the unforgettable memories. Roger Maltbie does his standup from the edge of the 18th fairway but can barely get through it. “I hope you catch the biggest fish you have ever caught in your life,” he says, “and I hope you’re the grandpa you want to be. I am gonna miss you, buddy.”
The line rocks Miller. He pushes away from the set. A tear streaks down his right cheek.
“Clint Eastwood,” the producer intones into Miller’s headset, their codeword to keep him from breaking down, and he composes himself long enough to describe Rickie Fowler’s shot from the fairway bunker.
Fowler is marching up toward the 18th green with a four-stroke lead, and what could be more fitting? Hicks gleefully tees up his partner on one of his favorite topics.
How a player handles pressure – the previously taboo “choke factor” – was always the most compelling part of the game to Miller; it’s what he believed separated good players from the superstars. On this matter he spoke from experience. Even with yippy putting Miller still owned an 80-percent closing rate with a 54-hole lead (12-for-15), slightly ahead of Jack Nicklaus (78.9%) and well above the Tour average since 2013 (43.2%). Fowler’s inability to close has dogged him for much of his career, but Miller never invoked the C-word on Saturday. He delivered this sharp insight instead: “At some point you can transition from what you’ve been to something more. I think he’s going to come alive.”
It’s 3:56 p.m., the golf is done for the day, and Hicks tries to segue to the goodbye he’s been dreading for the past few months. “I don’t know how you sum up 20 years in a few seconds here,” he starts, and there was no way he could. Theirs was the longest-running partnership in broadcast golf, and over the years it evolved from a work to a “love relationship.” For a feature on Miller’s greatest hits, Hicks pored over hundreds of hours of footage; on a few occasions his wife caught him weeping in his office.
“I just want to say I love you,” Hicks says, “and thank you so much for allowing me to sit next to you.”
Now it's Johnny’s turn, and everyone in the booth, even with his wife, inches closer to listen. He’s had months to prepare his sendoff, but there is only so much time, and there are so many people to thank, and there are so many directions he could go, and there’s been so much energy expended over the past 48 hours, and no matter how many times he hears “Clint Eastwood” in his ear there’s no way he won’t get choked up on-air. So he wings it.
“It has been a pleasure,” he says softly. “I appreciate all of the people out there. I tried to do a lot of my commentating for you. I’m glad you accepted my form of commentating, which was not normal. It was a little bit rough at first, but it has been a pleasure. The friendships I’ve made and the guys on our team that have been so amazingly good.
“So, thank you.”
The red light flips off.
* * *
BOTH MEN ARE FRIED. Hicks leans forward in his chair and blinks back tears. “That felt like a major Sunday,” he says later. Miller pinches the brim of his nose and wipes his eyes, then hastily gathers his notes.
“I didn’t cry that much,” he says proudly, packing the half-empty can of Easy Cheese into his bag. “I’ve been praying to the Big Guy upstairs to hold it together.”
Since this is live TV, some segments were cut because of time constraints. Cameras were supposed to follow Miller’s cart ride up the 18th fairway, as he waved to adoring fans. Didn’t happen. He was supposed to watch a montage of his greatest on-air calls. Never aired. He was supposed to share the booth with Azinger, for a symbolic passing of the headset. Not today.
Once the telecast is over, Azinger approaches the set and congratulates his predecessor.
“You’ll do great, I promise you,” Miller says, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll do just as well.”
Less than a half hour later, Miller is already back at the compound, his bags packed and his car idling outside. He swings open the door of the trailer and spies Maltbie on the couch.
“Hey, you can’t be in here anymore!” Maltbie cracks.
“You tried to get me to cry!” Miller says, poking his head inside. “I know you’ve been practicing trying to get me to cry.”
No one hangs around long. There are no emotional embraces. No heartfelt speeches. Life moves fast in TV land. In less than 24 hours it’ll be a new telecast, with a new crew, marking the start of a new era.
Later tonight Azinger will dine with his new work family at an upscale steakhouse. Miller is flying home to Utah to start the third act of his life, because for the first time in 50 years, he’s neither an active Tour player nor network broadcaster.
He slips through the chain-link fence and climbs into the backseat of his SUV, though they’re going nowhere fast. Traffic is stopped up ahead. He hangs his arm outside the window and cracks an impish smile, ready for whatever’s next.