News & Opinion

Lacking Grace, NBC’s Miller rips ‘easy’ setup

There are subplots and sublime sub-subplots.

The early hours of the 146th British Open on Saturday featured both, plus the most entertaining run of major-championship golf since Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson engaged in a rollicking birdie battle 12 months ago at Troon.

First, there was the record-ravaging assault of South Africa’s Branden Grace on the major-championship scoring record. Then, there were the shots fired at NBC broadcaster Johnny Miller, the well-known co-holder of the previous record.

Truth be told, it’s hard to say which was more enjoyable to absorb.

Before most Americans had turned on the TV, Grace’s 8-under 62 at Royal Birkdale had broken the major-championship scoring record by a stroke, a record of which Grace said he had “no idea.” 

Which was fine, because Miller surely knew – and so did everybody else. 

The back story: Miller has long been a target of fan barbs because, until Saturday, he was one of the 31 players who had signed for a 63 at one of the game’s four majors. Miller, who recently signed a contract extension with NBC through 2018, hasn’t often missed a chance to remind viewers that his 63 – the first in a major championship – came in the final round of his victory at the 1973 U.S. Open.

Once it became apparent that Miller might be forced to provide commentary on his own statistical funeral, the fun began. Even before Grace took a flamethrower to the ridiculously vulnerable Birkdale venue, Golf Channel/NBC course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay cracked on the air, “Nobody tell Johnny, but there’s a 62 out there today.”

So, as Grace began his back-nine walk toward history, Miller became an equally huge player in the storyline. Hence the one-liner from Mackay, if not this one from Yahoo’s Jay Busbee, who authored the Grace-related tweet of the day: “Listening to Johnny Miller watch guys take runs at his 63 is like listening to a father watch his daughter's prom date unfold.”

The last 90 minutes turned into a hilarious referendum on Miller’s perceived conflict of interest as the co-owner of the soon-to-be-extinct mark, with Miller contributing plenty of ammo for viewers already convinced of his bias.

“It was set up really easy today, folks,” Miller said after Grace finished. 

Social media erupted. Forget the fact that Miller was absolutely right, and merely doing his job in supplying an opinion as an analyst. There was no wind, no rain and barely any rough. The greens, arguably the flattest in the British Open rotation, had been triple-cut Saturday morning. Tees had been moved up to 7,027 yards. 

Years ago, ABC’s Howard Cosell infamously won a viewer poll in which he was named the least-liked and most-liked sportscaster in America. Miller surely can relate. No matter what Miller said, viewers perceived it as sour grapes. As Grace played the last four holes, the running commentary was bristling, to say the least. From the viewers, we mean. Here’s a smattering of Twitter missives: 

“I never want to see Johnny Miller before 10 a.m. again.”

“Did you know Johnny Miller shot a 63?”

“Waking up to the Open Championship is great. Waking up to Johnny Miller is less so.”

“Universal annoyance with Johnny Miller on NBC is proof that Americans can still come together.”

“What does 63 minus 1 equal? Johnny Miller’s world caving in. Majestic.”

One Twitter wag posted a picture of a guy (i.e., Miller) sticking pins in a voodoo doll (aka, Grace).

Grace likely was the lone guy on the planet who whiffed on the day’s impending significance.

"I had no idea whatever was the lowest [round] at all,” he told Steve Sands of Golf Channel/NBC. “Sometimes it helps not knowing these things."

The rest of us knew, and here’s proof: As Grace played the 17th hole, Miller was trending at No. 8 on Twitter in the United States. Grace was a slot lower on the same scale, at No. 9.

As Grace played the 17th, Miller kept adding fuel to the fescue fire. "After the scoring average was 74 in the tough weather yesterday,” he said, laughing, “the R&A must have been feeling very charitable."

After a drive into the light left rough on the par-4 18th, Grace needed a par to shoot 62. As Grace surveyed the shot, Miller told course reporter Notah Begay: “He’s got the perfect ball flight for it. It’s whether or not he doesn’t think too much, Notah. He has a perfect angle, perfect wind for the shot, the right hole location. He is really in a good spot.

“The only thing I could see that he could do wrong is kind of lock up at impact with the pressure that’s on him and put it in that front pot bunker.”

When Grace bombed his approach onto the back fringe, leaving him 40 feet to the hole, Miller said: "That's no gimme two-putt. He must have been all jacked up." 

On Twitter, Miller was asked, “Why don't you just scream ‘Noonan!’ ”

It was like eating Grand Slam ice cream, with multiple toppings. A few moments later, after a deft lag putt, Grace rolled in a 30-incher to break a record that had stood for 441 previous major championships. A heartbeat later, Grace’s score was emblazoned in foot-high numbers on TV screens across the land. 

If Miller truly was having bittersweet pangs, he did a good job of hiding it. Of course, whether he was or wasn’t didn’t lessen the enjoyment of the NBC coverage, or conversely, social media’s “coverage” of Miller and NBC, one iota.

“That’s got to be fun for him,” Miller said as Grace was embraced by his caddie, Zack Rasego, and playing competitor, Jason Dufner. “The 35th world-ranked player, right in his prime at 29 years old. 

“Sweet. Look at that number. That is sweet.”

So was the moment, and for many, doubly so. 

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling