Of Chips, Putts And Chokes

Arnold Palmer walked up the 18th fairway at the end of the second round of the 2002 U.S. Senior Open last June to the sound of cheers and applause. It was a warm and familiar scene. "Yet another ovation for the king," said NBC announcer Dan Hicks, as the 72-year-old Palmer waved to the fans. Then Arnie, who would finish the first 36 holes hopelessly out of the running at 25 over par, flew his short approach shot past the pin and sent it skipping into some nasty rough behind the green. The ovation resumed, but at least one observer was not impressed. "That's the one shot that Arnold Palmer never had in his career," said NBC's analyst Johnny Miller. "A real soft, high, lob pitch shot. He always drove it in there too hard." Ouch! Take that, Arnie.

Even living legends don't escape the sharp eye and sharper tongue of Miller--who has become something of a legend himself for his outspoken style behind the mike. "His problem is, there's no filter between his mouth and his brain," says his son Andy, who is playing on the PGA Tour this year (and could benefit from the fact that his dad usually gets too nervous to talk while watching him play). The senior Miller makes his 2003 debut this week at the Ford Championship (played at Doral in Miami), the first of five tour events in a row on NBC. Golf fans and tour pros can expect another season of astute insights and frank opinions from the man many consider the best in the field. "My goal in announcing is to speak just

like I'm in the living room with you and we're having pizza and I'm just letting go," Miller said last month as he relaxed in the clubhouse at Pebble Beach, Calif. "Whatever I think comes out."

Some of Miller's most notorious on-air thoughts came out during the 1999 Ryder Cup. First, in a preview show, he said he thought the Americans were going to lose to the Europeans. He soon topped that by saying Justin Leonard was playing so poorly he should have stayed home and watched the event on TV. Miller, who claims to have become "a little more gentle" since then, now refers to the Leonard remark as a "double bogie," and says he was mentally tired from too many hours on the air. But even as he recounts his apology to Leonard, Miller can't help but add a thought. "I wanted to say, but I didn't, 'You were playing bad and your Ryder Cup record stunk and the bottom line was I couldn't believe they pulled Jeff Maggert, who was playing great'."

Miller used the word "choke" in his very first broadcast back in 1990, and the game hasn't been the same since. "Nobody had ever said 'choke' in the history of golf on TV," he recalls with a laugh. "But to me the most interesting part of golf is how you handle the choke factor." Indeed, Miller says he was studying for a "doctorate in choking" during his playing days; he watched opponents closely to see how different players handled the pressure of leading a tournament. Of course, not everyone shares Miller's enthusiasm for the subject. "I'd say he overuses the word," says Jim Furyk, a member of the 1999 Ryder team. "He plugs it in there even when it doesn't work." In a classic demonstration of the mixed feelings Miller engenders among the players, Furyk goes on to say that he likes Miller, that he's a "nice person." Then he adds that the Leonard remark "will live in infamy." "I won't forget it," Furyk says.

What shouldn't be forgotten is Miller's extraordinary record as a player, which gives him so much credibility as a critic. A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Miller, 55, won 25 times on tour, including the 1973 U.S. Open (where he shot 63 on Sunday, still a record for the final round in that event) and the 1976 British Open. Miller is most proud of the fact that he played against Jack Nicklaus when the "Golden Bear" "was absolutely in his prime." From 1974 through 1976, Miller's best years, he won 15 tournaments to Nicklaus's nine. "He was way better than I was in majors," Miller says. "But in regular tournaments, if I played my best and he played his best, I could beat him." In fact, Miller caught some heat in those days for the less-than-worshipful way he talked about Jack. "Everybody got mad because I was saying, 'I'm not afraid of Jack Nicklaus. I can beat Jack Nicklaus.' I should have just kept my mouth shut, probably, but that was just me."

And that will be just him in your living room this week, saying exactly what he thinks without thinking about it, getting into the minds and under the skins of the best golfers in the world. "There are a lot of good announcers, but I enjoy listening to him the most," says 22-year tour veteran Scott Hoch. "I know he makes some people upset, but shoot, if you hit a bad shot it's a bad shot. Why try to sugarcoat it?" Miller wouldn't think of it. "I'm not good at lavishing," he said as he prepared for his 14th season on NBC. "I'm just not one of these guys that drools all over. I'm not the drooly type." As if we didn't know.