Lexus Day 3: Sitting With Johnny Miller

Editor’s note: I was recently at Pebble Beach for the 2012 Lexus Champions for Charity as a guest of Lexus. This is another installment in an ongoing series.

Lexus Day 3: Sitting With Johnny Miller 1
Johnny Miller at recent Lexus event. (Lexus)

PEOPLE LIKE JOHNNY MILLER because he says what he thinks. People dislike Johnny Miller because he says what he thinks. (Some of that dislike is because he tends to remind people how good he was as a player. You know what? He really was. I saw him play.) I’ve never wavered. I’m in the like column, even though I know he might say something that makes me cringe. As I’ve commented in the past, Johnny can be like a goofy or crazy uncle. You’re not sure what he’ll say or do, but he’s family.

Johnny is a part of my golf family. I grew up with him. When he was at his peak in the early and mid 1970s, I was playing high school golf. Johnny was a great ball striker and one of the best iron players ever. Hall-of-Famers such as Lee Trevino and Lanny Wadkins have said as much.

So, as you might imagine, it was more than pretty cool that Lexus, my gracious hosts, seated me next to Johnny Miller at the front table during the champions dinner and awards ceremony in Pebble Beach on a recent Saturday night. Johnny was on my left; my wife was on my right. Peter Jacobsen was next to Johnny. We talked, ate dinner and talked some more, until it was time for Peter and Johnny to hand out the awards and pose for pictures with the winners. Those were a fun two hours.

What was Johnny like?

The same guy you hear on TV, perhaps easier to converse with than I expected. I didn’t know what to expect. I had wondered what he would be like in person. It was easy, though, comfortable. It wasn’t an interview, just dinner-table conversation, which made it better.

The real thing. “This is a good Coke,” Johnny said not long after we were seated. “They’re all different.” You don’t drink diet soda? I asked. He said no because he’s allergic to so many things, including artificial sweeteners, apparently. I said that he didn’t look like he was having trouble keeping the weight off. His reaction seemed to say that he thought he could be doing better.

Comparing short arms. One of the first things I said to Johnny was how I liked watching him play when I was a teen and would pretend to be him during my solo rounds at my local nine-hole golf course. I mentioned that I related to his height and how he bent over a lot to reach for the golf ball. I knew he was fairly tall (6’2”) and figured he might have short arms, like me. Johnny got to his feet. Let’s see, he said. We stood shoulder to shoulder, his right, my left, our arms hanging at our sides. He told me that he always thought he had the shortest arms of a tall golfer, but I think I had him beat. (I’m almost 6’4” and my sleeve length is only about 33 inches.) Johnny said during his playing days he played irons that were a half inch over regulation, but is now considering an extra two inches on his irons. He doesn’t play much golf, though, and he doesn’t miss it. He’d rather be fly fishing in a mountain stream. In fact, he told me he was heading up toward Redding in a few days on a fishing trip.

His mom’s blackberry pie. I asked Johnny if he ever foresaw himself doing TV work. No, he said. He’s signed on for three more years with NBC. After that it sounds like he’ll be gone, except for an occasional event. He wondered aloud who might take his place. I said, “You must enjoy it.” He’s still in the tower after 20-plus years. Johnny said he feels like he has something to offer and brings something different to the game. My wife told him how she appreciates his candor. He told me a story about his mom’s blackberry pie. He always wondered why it was the best. His mom finally shared the secret: mostly ripe, sweet berries, plus a few select tart ones. An approach that can also work well for golf commentary.

More on Johnny’s playing days, the yips, Peter Jacobsen and other stuff. I now realize this is too long to finish in one installment, so I’ll plan to share more about Johnny and Peter later. Come on back.

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Neil Sagebiel

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