Johnny Miller: 'If I Don't Win the Masters, I'll Be Surprised'

To the thousands of women who trail him around the golf courses of America, Johnny Miller is their Robert Redford in Sears, Roebuck double-knits and spikes. His square-jawed face, tan and lean, is classic Sundance Kid. He fits the role of golf star as if cast by a Hollywood director. Johnny almost never sweats, his clothes are always permanently pressed. When his powerful arms whip upward in his follow-through and the effort tumbles his golden hair, Johnny Miller is as electrifying as any athlete in the world.

There could be little argument after Johnny’s consecutive victories in the first three tournaments of the 1974 season—the Crosby, the Tucson and the Phoenix Opens. By February 1, he had earned more in one month, $97,700, than many pros do in a season. Last week, with $109,000 under his belt, he was still the biggest money winner on the tour by more than $40,000. Add to that record a surreal 63—eight under par—at the U.S. Open last June and 23 consecutive rounds at par or less. Small wonder that with U.S. golf’s supreme challenge, the Masters, two weeks away, golf’s faithful find it easy to believe in Johnny Miller.

Not long ago while at Fort Lauderdale’s Inverrary Country Club for the Jackie Gleason tournament, Johnny talked about his game. “I’ve never played better in my life—my drives are longer and my putting much surer.” The cobalt eyes were intense, unblinking. “I really want to win the Masters very, very badly. I love the tradition—what it’s meant to golf. If I don’t win, I’ll be as surprised as anyone.”

Johnny Miller has always set high goals for himself. As a youngster in San Francisco, he spent rainy afternoons driving golf balls into a tarp his father had hung in the basement. At 7, he was handed over to the pro at the San Francisco Golf Club. But Johnny’s goal this spring is unusually demanding. Because of its history, the quality of competition and the extraordinary pressure it builds, the Masters is the one tournament above all others that young golfers dream of taking. The exploits of Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus linger over the Augusta National course like the early morning mists of Georgia, ready to haunt and harry the best of the field.

Johnny’s rookie year—1969—gave little hint of the champion emerging; he earned only $8,364. Although he has been a steady player right along, it wasn’t until the astonishing 63, which won him the U.S. Open last year, that he made golf history—and the endorsements began coming in.

Many major tournaments have competitions for a new car, and Miller seems to have driven off with more than his share. The driveway outside his three-bedroom condominium at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif, has come to look like a used-car lot. At last count he owned a Thunderbird, a Porsche (which he occasionally drives at 140 mph), a Ford station wagon and a couple of Dodges. He has a Ferrari on order.

Johnny’s winnings over four years on the tour are approaching the half-million figure, and he has at least doubled that by endorsing products ranging from Japanese tomato juice to Beautyrest mattresses. This year he could well double his lifetime earnings on and off the course.

As Miller’s earnings have soared, so in a more modest way have those of his caddy of four years, Andy Martinez. Andy has earned more in the first two months of 1974 than Johnny did in his whole rookie year. “We’re a real team,” says Johnny. “He’s a good companion, we’ll probably be together for life. I trust him totally for all my pin placements and distances. He’s never wrong. Heck, if he weren’t so caught up caddying on the tour, he might make it as a player.” Out on the green in a tournament, the two of them are the picture of a team—Johnny hunkered down, putter straight in front of him, lining up his shot; Andy crouched behind him, sighting over his shoulder like a big-league ump calling a close one. Andy points to a shred of paper in the way, and carefully, so as not to alter the tilt of a single blade of grass, Miller flips it away. With Andy directly behind him, Johnny hovers over the ball—a steady, slow backswing, a tap, the ball hurries through the grass. Plop. It’s found its mark. Applause. Johnny Miller salutes his fans, his head bent humbly, his index finger pointed straight up. He spots his wife Linda in the gallery and mouths a few words which only she can lipread. She smiles; he smiles. Between green and tee their paths cross. He walks up and pats her on her backside. Hundreds of young women in the gallery sigh.

Caddy Andy Martinez says that the only field Johnny plays is the fairway. “He gets some pretty fantastic offers. He’s very polite. He tells them he’s happily married with two children: he says he has a single caddy who may be available. He’s a very thoughtful guy.”

Though Linda met Johnny while they both were students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Johnny’s membership in the Mormon Church actually had little to do with his being there. Says Linda, “I think he chose it because the golf coach [Glen Tuckett] was a fast talker.” Linda, then a non-Mormon who has since converted, had gone there after a year at an eastern school, where she found the lifestyle of the students not at all suited to her strict Philadelphia upbringing. Today she is a relaxed, confident woman, an attitude that reflects the solidity of their marriage. “When he’s home, he’s Johnny Miller, daddy. He doesn’t bring the game home with him. He really enjoys being with the children. He’s very affectionate.”

If Johnny is triumphant at Augusta, the Millers know there will be more demands on his time—even though the money has already lost the allure it once had. “Now I’d like to be the player that everyone else wants to knock off, like Nicklaus,” says Johnny, a faint smile turning the corners of his mouth. “But I don’t think that can go on forever—my family means too much. Most of all I want to be a success as a father.” His eyes narrow again into an intense golfer’s squint, he scuffs at the grass with his red, white and blue shoes. “We’re going to build a big house out in California. Don’t be surprised if at some point down this road I unpack my bags, stay in the valley, play with my kids and drive my Porsche.”

His listener looks dubious. “Well, all right,” the Sundance Kid admits, perhaps thinking of the glory if not the bullion at the end of the trail. “Maybe I’ll just turn out for the big ones—like the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open…”

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