Miller turns back sands of time at Pebble Beach

February 07, 1994|By Larry Dorman | Larry Dorman,New York Times News Service

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- There is always something of an unreal sense at Pebble Beach, a sort of vaguely mystic quality to the golf and the surroundings.

But old Pebble Beach has never been as mysterious and dreamlike as yesterday when, out of the mists of time, a retired golfer stepped up and won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Johnny Miller, 46, playing in just his fifth tournament since 1990, reappeared yesterday like some specter from another era. He then beat his nerves and he beat Tom Watson down the stretch to capture his first tournament victory since he won at Pebble Beach seven years ago.

"That didn't really happen," said Miller, whose final-round 74 gave him a total of 7-under-par 281, one stroke better than Watson and three other players -- Jeff Maggert, Corey Pavin and Kirk Triplett -- who never really threatened. "It was a mirage. It was weird, like the whole thing wasn't happening. I had this strange sense of calm."

He was the only one who had that sense. For the other players on the rainy, windy and cold day, nerves were as jagged as the rocky Monterey Peninsula coastline.

Watson collapsed down the stretch, three-putting both the 16th and 17th holes to fall out of the lead. He finished with a 74 when his birdie attempt on the 18th hole stopped short, dead on line.

Dudley Hart, the third-round leader who began the round at 10-under par, ran afoul of that most scenic and most deadly portion of Pebble Beach -- the eighth, ninth and 10th holes that are sometimes called Carmel Hell -- bogeyed them all and finished with a 78 that dropped him into a tie for seventh.

It was almost as though Miller was being pulled along by forces out of his control. There are not many other ways to explain the victory, which is the 25th of his career.

He did not three-putt a hole all day, a fact that is remarkable, given his ongoing battles with the yips. Miller's putting got so bad that it drove him from the PGA Tour after his 1987 victory.

But there he was, if not making the putts that had to be made at least not three-putting holes that could not be three-putted. After Hart launched his chances over the cliff at the ninth and 10th holes, it came down to Miller and Watson, and there was a day when there would have been no question at all about which of those two players would make the crucial putts.

"Who would have ever thought that Johnny would out-putt Tom Watson?" said Roger Maltbie, who splits time working with Miller at NBC and also plays the PGA Tour. "I never did."

Neither did Miller, Watson or anyone who follows the game. But it happened, on a course where Miller has now won three titles in three decades. He won the 1974 Bing Crosby here, the 1987 AT&T and now this most improbable of victories, worth $225,000 and an invitation to the Masters, which Miller said he will accept.

After finishing his round, the roar from the grandstand at the 18th was loud and sweet, the first Miller had heard aimed at him in seven years. He heard it, but he didn't hear it.

"You want to know the truth? I can't believe I won," he said. "It goes to show you that in the right place, at the right time, magic can happen. This is magic."

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