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Miller to sign off this week as best in golf

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The greatest call of Johnny Miller’s broadcasting career also was among the easiest: Retirement.

Miller will be 72 in April. He hasn’t lost much off his fastball, he still paints the corners of the plate with insights like no one else, and as far as being the No. 1 golf analyst in TV history, he retired the trophy a long time ago.

Johnny’s still got it. He showed that with some smart observations of the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s dismal showing in France in September. He has been right most of the time (even if Craig Parry and Justin Leonard, among others, didn’t want to hear it) over the years. So, I’ll trust his judgment now even though golf without Miller won’t be the same. I take solace in the fact that his replacement, Paul Azinger, is the second-best 18th-tower golf analyst in TV history.

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Johnny Miller

I’d love to hear them work as a duo for a full season. I bet they’d push each other the way Azinger and Nick Faldo did when ABC made them a curious team years ago. They later ended up as Ryder Cup captains, with Azinger pretty much body-slamming Faldo and the Europeans in 2008 at Valhalla. They were the odd couple at ABC before that, though, and they shined because they tried to outdo each other on-air in what was a continuation of their lifetime rivalry. That performance helped Faldo land the job as lead analyst at CBS. And now Azinger is heir to the Miller throne.

You’ll see a unique passing of the baton this weekend. Miller will make his farewell after Saturday’s third round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open here at TPC Scottsdale. Saturday is always the wildest day at the PGA Tour’s wildest tournament. Azinger will hit the booth running Sunday for the final round, which is annually the undercard for the Super Bowl.

What’s behind the transition is that Miller has lived life on the road as a player and broadcaster for 50 years. He said he likes the sound of that round number and how Phoenix feels like a good place to stop.

Miller always has had a mystic side. Shortly before the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, a fortune-teller told Miller that he was going to win the tournament. He has said he heard voices on occasion. At Oakmont, he claimed a voice in his head told him to open his stance that week.

Now a voice is telling him to walk away. “There is a time and a season for everything,” Miller said. “Time goes on.”

Maybe it’s just the heightened sense of mortality realized by hitting his 70s. Miller said it’s the family. While he trails Jack Nicklaus in major-championship titles, 18-2, he has a slight edge over Nicklaus in grandkids, 24-22. That game is on, Jack. Miller does self-examination with the same critical edge that he applies to golf.

“I’m jealous of my father and all the time he spent with me and my game,” Miller said. “All four of my boys were really good players. Andy was on tour for a little while, but I felt if I had given them the time my dad gave me, they could have gotten that one shot better a round – if that’s what they wanted to do. I was too busy.

“You know, time is the greatest gift you can give your kids. We have a saying in our church [Mormon] that no amount of success compensates for failure in the home. Not that I failed, but I could have shot a little better score if I had been home more often. Most men have to answer to that. I’ve got this little window left where I can impart some knowledge and life skills to these grandkids and my own kids, too.

“That’s probably more of an answer than you wanted, but those are the things rattling around in my head.”

Miller conceded that as a player, he considered himself to be the opposite of Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. They were “consistently brilliant,” but he was streaky and unpredictable.

“My biggest weakness was that I wasn’t totally in love with golf like Tom Kite or a lot of players,” he said. “That’s why I was so good at the beginning of the year. We had October, November and December off. By January, I was gung-ho. My iron game was just better than most everybody. It was that way from the time I was 10. It was a gift, that’s all. You can’t explain it.”

Miller had a gift talking golf, too. Football fans make a big deal about NFL analyst Tony Romo’s ability to call plays before they happen. Miller has been doing that for three decades. One notable call was the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

“It was the 15the tee. We weren’t even through the first round,” NBC golf host Dan Hicks recalled. “Johnny said, ‘I have a feeling Tiger is going to do something special, have a historical week and break all kinds of records. Tiger’s gonna say, See ya, guys.’ I thought, Are you going there already?

Johnny called his shot. Woods posted what at the time was the lowest score in U.S. Open history, and the largest margin of victory.

You can expect to see that moment again Saturday when NBC peppers its telecast from TPC Scottsdale with all sorts of Miller flashbacks, including one segment that Hicks wrote about the appropriateness of the farewell location.

“I pored over hours of footage,” Hicks said. “I cried a little and laughed a lot. That will be a special piece people will enjoy, I hope.”

I have a lot of favorite Miller Time moments, too many from which to choose. I used to help Miller produce columns for Golf World magazine, so I chatted with him on a regular basis and was his ghostwriter. It was a privilege to be privy to his golf knowledge and ideas. I remember one U.S. Open preview when he pointed out that Steve Jones was the first Open champ with a predominant right-to-left shot shape since Ben Hogan. Simple, yet brilliant. He was always full of enthusiasm to discuss the Masters, which he liked to call the National Spring Putting Invitational.

Perhaps the most memorable Miller moment for me was when he won at Pebble Beach in 1994 – what would be the last of his 25 Tour victories – out of nowhere, and edged another old-timer, Tom Watson, to do it. I wasn’t expecting to be lucky enough to ever write a Miller-versus-Watson piece again. It was a treat.

The best part may have been the winner’s interview. Miller needed only one question and was off and running, going through the ups and downs of his round like a suave broadcaster. His narrative got to the 17th hole, where his pro-am partner, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, hit a tee shot that struck a seagull and knocked it out of the sky, dead.

An annoying British free-lance writer, who loudly dictated his dry stories from pressroom phones, butted in and asked, in a big, commanding voice, “Johnny, have you ever seen anything else killed on a golf course before?”

Miller blinked a couple of times, totally knocked off kilter by the nonsensical question. “Uh, maybe a crow once at Doral,” Miller finally answered after he gathered himself.

The question was a true rally killer, and Miller didn’t regain his stride through the rest of the interview. I turned his news conference chat into a first-person Miller column for Golf World magazine, my employer, but I left out the part about the crow. I think.

I never understood the Miller haters. In magazine surveys of readers, he usually won “Best Golf Announcer” and “Worst Golf Announcer.” Maybe it was his swagger, the same way he carried himself as a player when he was as good as anyone in the 1970s and acted as if he knew it, too. Maybe golf purists didn’t like anything resembling criticism after decades of Pollyannas in the broadcast tower.

Or maybe, as I believe, nobody likes someone whom they consider to be a know-it-all, even if that know-it-all is Johnny Miller and he’s almost always right. Especially if he is almost always right.

I hope Johnny’s grandkids listen to him with at least half the fascination that golf fans gave him during the past three decades. I hope someday they realize what he gave up to provide them with the most precious gift of all, his time.

It’s a big gift, but there are no regrets. Good call, Johnny.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle