News & Opinion

Miller’s candor defines golf analysis on TV

Johnny Miller started hitting golf balls in the basement of his childhood home in San Francisco at age 5 (off a mat, into canvas). All these years later, his career in the game nears an end as he announced last week his retirement as NBC’s lead analyst.

Golf won’t be the same without him.

Miller was its signature voice, the oh-so-candid soundtrack to countless memorable moments. He had an eye for detail, a gift for bluntness, unwavering bravado and complete fearlessness.

That’s a rare, powerful mix.

By now, you probably know the mechanics of this transition. Miller, 71, will make his farewell broadcast in February at the Phoenix Open; Paul Azinger will replace him while still calling the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on Fox. Azinger essentially will become the next voice of golf (“Azinger’s plan: ‘Keep calling it like it is’,” Oct. 23).

First, it seems fitting to acknowledge and appreciate Miller for his staggering career in TV, which began when he joined NBC in 1990 – and immediately explained why Peter Jacobsen faced a shot that was easy to “choke on.”

Miller’s work resonated because he had credibility, to start. He won 25 times on the PGA Tour, including two major championships (1973 U.S. Open and ’76 British Open). He earned Player of the Year honors in 1974, when he collected a Tiger-like eight victories. Miller might be the best iron player ever, a skill tracing to his upbringing on tight, tree-lined courses such as Harding Park and The Olympic Club in his hometown.

And still: He made more impact as a broadcaster.

There are several reasons for this. Miller played in an era when Jack Nicklaus dominated, winning 18 majors. Tom Watson (eight) and Lee Trevino (six) also won more majors than Miller did. He was a star, no question, but he occasionally becomes lost in the crowded historical conversation.

By contrast, Miller worked in TV at a time when most broadcasters were careful and bland. He stood out, becoming the Nicklaus of TV analysts.

His authoritative analysis carried a touch of arrogance, sure. Miller seldom hesitated to remind viewers of his success as a player, routinely dropping in references to his final-round 63 at Oakmont to secure his U.S. Open title.

But widen the scope and his candor about players, and how they coped with pressure, was important for golf. If the game wanted the attention and popularity of other major sports, then its players needed to learn to handle scrutiny and criticism.

This equation started with Miller and his educated, if sometimes harsh, opinions. NBC producer Tommy Roy always marveled at Miller’s unfiltered observations, and he structured the telecasts accordingly.

“I wanted to create this conversation between former Tour pros as if they were sitting in front of the TV in a family room, commenting about what they were seeing,” Roy said. “I thought we would get much better information, and also some fun, if we were eavesdropping on their conversation.

“So that’s how it unfolded. Johnny’s mic was open the whole time, and pretty much the telecast would flow through him. It’s been fantastic.”

To think, it started with a 5-year-old smacking shots in his basement, then learning how to play from his dad, Larry. In the end, we all learned a few things about golf.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick