NBC's Miller has a choke hold on television analysts of yore

March 15, 1992|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Knight-Ridder

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Until Johnny Miller came along, golf commentary on TV consisted of a good-old-boy, face-saving conspiracy of silence.

When once asked why he so rarely criticized anyone, Lee Trevino, Miller's predecessor at NBC, replied, "If I have to criticize people to keep this job, then I don't want the job."

That was the state of golf analysis. If, in a crucial situation, a player hit an awful shot, or badly missed a makable putt, the standard practice was to invent an external reason. A sudden gust of wind. A spike mark on the green. Movement in the gallery. A bad lie.

That's often what it was -- a bad lie.

"I'd hear all this junk coming out of the announcers," said Miller, recalling his pre-TV days when he was a regular on the PGA Tour. "They wouldn't really tell what happened. I'd say, 'Ah, come on. The guy duck-hooked it. He's choking his guts out.' "

Oh, no. He didn't. He couldn't. He wouldn't. We must have heard him wrong.

He could. He would. He did.

Johnny Miller said the dreaded "C" word. He said the world's best golfers, including himself when he fit into that category, sometimes choke.

He continues to make the observation when he thinks it is appropriate. He will be working the Honda Classic for NBC this weekend, on the alert for gagging noises.

The pros, who enjoy their demigod status with the golfing public, resent Miller's comments, and a number have said so. But they don't deny them. They can't. Miller's right. Golf is the ultimate mind game, a hellish test of nerves and will ("yips" are merely a colorful term for failure to overcome nerves). With a tournament on the line, a player's toughest opponent becomes himself. Sometimes he wins. Sometimes the enemy within wins.

"You can win money with talent and hard work, but to win tournaments you've got to conquer a lot of golfing demons," Miller said. "The truth is there's a whole lot of gagging and choking going on out there. But I think I'm still the only one to use those words on the air. Most commentators are friends of the pros and want to stay friends. I knew there would be a certain number who wouldn't like their pants pulled down in public, but I feel I owe it to the game of golf and to the public that supports it to tell the truth.

"You see, I think it's good for the game to show the players as human beings. The tour is a traveling circus, a show. Players should know it's important to talk to the gallery, smile, show emotion. You don't have to be a clown, but if everyone acted like a zombie out there, they'd be playing for about $50,000 a week."

In a sports context, "choke" has a terribly negative connotation. It suggests a lack of courage, a moral flaw. But Miller, who would call himself "a choking dog" when he blew important putts, doesn't see it as such a pejorative.

"To me it's an art form for a player to try to overcome his fears and nerves, channel his thoughts and energy in a positive direction and conquer his choke point," Miller said. "At first, your choke point may be just making the cut. Then it can go up to winning a tournament. I raised mine to the point of winning majors. One up or one down on 18, I'd tee it up and be totally comfortable in a regular tournament, like I was out playing with you. But it was different in a major."

Different? How? What is Miller's definition of choking?

"Making a decision or hitting a shot you'd never hit normally," Miller said. "A good example is [Mark] Calcavecchia's shot at 17 on the final day of the Ryder Cup. He hit a long iron off the tee that barely got off the ground before it went into a pond. It had about two seconds hang time. I'll bet he has never hit one like that before or since.

"I remember I hit a shank in the '72 Crosby on 16 at Pebble Beach. I was tied with Jack [Nicklaus] at the time and shanked a 7-iron on a down slope. I don't think I had hit a shank in 10 years, but from then on, I never won a tournament without at least once asking myself, 'Are you going to shank one again like you did at Pebble Beach?'

"It was a demon I always had to overcome. Almost every golfer has one. They either make you tougher, or they kill you."

It is important to Miller that his motives be understood.

"I don't criticize a guy because I think I was better than him," said Miller, 44, who has 23 career victories on the Tour but who rarely plays now because of health problems. "I don't want to demean anyone. I don't envy anyone, and I have no animosity toward anyone. I describe what a guy did wrong and what he should do to correct it. If he watches a tape, it's like a free lesson. I want him to improve.

"I think the public knows my heart is in the right place, and I believe that's why I've been accepted as well as I have. To be honest, players come and go. I try to speak for the people and the game."

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