Returning to the site of his 1976 British Open win, Johnny Miller answers questions about that week, Royal Birkdale and his future with NBC.
Q: What do you recall most about playing the last two rounds with a then-unknown 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros in 1976? He had a pretty rough Sunday, no?
A: “Nobody really knew who he was I guess, maybe in Spain or maybe a few little European events, but surely nobody in the U.S. did. I was sort of curious watching him. He had this great big ‘ol swing and played super aggressively. I was hitting 1-iron off the tee most every hole, and he was playing with his driver. He played pretty good on Saturday, but Sunday he was just all over the place. I guess the thought of a 19-year-old winning the Open Championship was probably, at that point, too much for him because he just started hitting it all over those giant sand dunes.”
Q: You shot 66 that last round.
A: “It was actually a course record at the time. And in both of my majors, if you were going to win them, that was a pretty good way to win them. Of course, Seve opened the door for me. It was pretty much a runaway. Once I holed it from about 40 yards for eagle on 15, the par 5, I had about, a five- or six-shot lead. And Seve always told everybody afterwards, ‘All of a sudden, Johnny got real friendly.’ He didn’t talk to me at all for two days, and then all of a sudden he’s rambling in Spanish at me.”
Q: Do you speak any Spanish?
A: “Yeah, a little bit, actually. Nothing major, but enough to at least say something back.”
Q: The “Summer of ‘76” film debuting on Golf Channel during the British Open captures some ’70s culture and style. You are seen strutting in a plaid sports coat. What was that about?
A: “I had my own line of clothing at Sears then, The Johnny Miller Collection. In fact, when you went into Sears, you’d go through this little gate inside the store. It was this whole line of clothes and a pretty big deal, actually. Doesn’t sound like it, maybe, because Sears is not as big now. But then, back then Sears was big. I modeled because they felt I had kind of a model’s build. It was an interesting experience doing all that modeling for several years. It was very mod, as they say. Very polyester.”
Q: What stands out to you about the current run of inconsistent star players and having so many first-time major winners?
A: “We’ve gone through the era that was the Nicklaus and Palmer and Player and Trevino and Watson, and guys like that who were a little more insatiable. And you couldn’t make so much money playing golf that you could let up. You knew you had to keep the foot on the gas pedal if you wanted to really create some wealth.
“Nowadays, man. The guys, they get so rich, so quick. And you can imagine if I had the year I had in ’74 and then the start of ’75, you know what that would be like nowadays. Now, I think the guys, as you say, fire and fall back.”
Q: Is this the new normal?
A: “Well, you know, every generation seems like there’s one or two guys that are just … they just can’t get enough of the wins. But right now, I think guys are trying but I don’t know.
“Like a Dustin Johnson, he’s won pretty prolifically recently, but only because he’s so darned good. I don’t know if he’s driven like a Gary Player or a Trevino; guys that are just so driven. Hale Irwin and Tom Kite and all these guys are just so driven. I don’t know; I’d have to get inside their head a little bit to see, but it just seems to be that way.
“Like a Rickie Fowler, who everybody pulls for. He’s just such a pleasant person. The guys I played against weren’t necessarily pleasant, like Raymond Floyd. They would just as soon kick you in the shins. So it seems like a little bit nicer, softer group. Very friendly amongst each other. It wasn’t quite so much that way before.”
Q: Your thoughts on Royal Birkdale?
A: “The big thing about Birkdale is that it’s surrounded by those dunes and long grass. It’s actually pretty hard to scramble if you hit it wildly, unlike Troon or some of those other courses where you can hit it out in the car park. Birkdale, if you hit it wildly, it’s pretty penal. It doesn’t seem to have the Scottish cache as much as a St. Andrews or a Carnoustie or Muirfield or whatever. But hole for hole, it doesn’t have to take a back seat to any of the rotation.
“And I hope we get a good champion there, that’s all. Last year, to get first Open we covered, to have that last day, that was easily a top-10 best championships I’ve ever covered or even watched. “
Q: You have an extensive notes notebook, so when you go back to Birkdale, do you actually have anything from your playing days that you’ll reference?
A: “The game has changed so much. I mean, as far as these guys are hitting it, it’s just it’s nutty. In fact, back then I still had spots on the course where I would put down what club it was in the front right, or middle or back, right or left. The yardage was just starting to get universally done instead of just what club do you hit from a par-3 tee. Now you’ve got the topographical maps on the greens, and they’ve got lasered yardages. Everything about the game is longer and easier. It’s because that’s the way sports are. It used to be sort of a quaint game when I first started playing, now it’s big business, so it’s a little different game than it used to be.”
Q: Contractually, this was supposed to be your last Open unless you extended with NBC. Is there any news on that front?
A: “I was ready to retire at the end of the year, to be real honest with you. And I’m not sure exactly why, but NBC basically said we need you to do some tournaments next year. So they’re not settled on who might be the next guy in line to take my position.
“So I haven’t decided 100 percent how many events, but I’m definitely going to do The Open next year, and we’ll see how many. It’s going to be doing less than I’m doing this year, so I haven’t totally decided if it’s going to be eight or nine events, or somewhere in that range. And they’ll probably try to segue and give guys a chance just to see what they can do. Then, unless they’re begging, next year, that’ll be probably it.”
Q: So this is an extension for one more year for now?
A: “I guess the answer is yes. If I don’t do any more events at the end of this year, I’m perfectly happy. Most likely I will do next year and then that should be probably be it, but hey, who knows. It’s a good job, but somebody’s got to take over eventually. I’ve been doing it 28 years, so I’ve had a pretty good run.”