Thursday, November 29, 2012

You’ve Got To Love Johnny Miller…

…especially if you’re a golf writer looking for a quote. With over two dozen wins on the PGA Tour, two majors to his credit and a 22-year career in the broadcast booth for CBS, Johnny has the credibility to speak his mind – and he certainly does; he is well-known for not pulling punches when doling out his opinions from the broadcast tower or in interviews.

Sportswriter Dan Jenkins mentioned Johnny’s acerbic commentary style in his 2005 novel Slim and None, when his main character, fictitious PGA Tour pro Bobby Joe Grooves, compared Miller to the blunt-spoken announcers at European Tour events:

“Hit a bad shot in America and every announcer but Johnny Miller will throw you a softball. Say something like, ‘That’s not exactly what he had in mind.’ 

But hit a bad shot in Europe and the Brit on the mike will say, ‘Ah, there’s old Aunt Martha, trying to play golf again.’ ”

Johnny was on hand the weekend before Thanksgiving at Pebble Beach as honorary host of the Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational pro-am tournament. Enjoying a pristine late-autumn Central Coast afternoon while he waited by the 18th green to present the trophy to tournament winner Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, Johnny was asked about the news that the current world #1, Rory McIlroy, was soon to make a wholesale equipment change. The young Northern Irishman is rumored to be signing a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Nike, and dropping the Titleist clubs and ball that have been in his bag for four European Tour victories, six PGA Tour wins, and two major championships. Johnny’s answer was typically blunt:

“It could be a major issue. It’s one thing to change clubs, but it’s another thing when you change ball and clubs. I did that with Wilson in ’75, and it literally ruined my career. I never tell anybody that, but since we got on it… they had that truncated-cone dimple ball and crappy woods – the irons were good, but I mean it was a disaster for me. It would have been one thing if I could have kept playing Titleist or something, but they wanted me to switch to their new ball.”
The problem with good players is they think they can win with a rental set, you know, but it really isn’t true. You have so much confidence you feel like ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter, I’ll take the big bucks…’ ”

McIlroy obviously feels differently about it than Miller; on Tuesday in Dubai he was asked by reporters if he had any concerns that the change would jeopardize his game. He replied, 

“No, not at all. I think all the manufacturers make great equipment nowadays and it’s all very similar – a lot of them get their clubs made at the same factories. I don’t think it will make any difference.”

With Nike in the equipment news recently promoting their new “cavity-back” Covert driver, and the second generation of their resin-core-technology ball, this is probably not what Rory’s new handlers in Beaverton would like to hear.

On the other hand, the folks at “The House That Swoosh Built” may not be concerned. With players’ roles these days more as brand ambassadors than pitchmen for a specific line of clubs or model of ball, McIlroy is not likely to be shoehorned into an existing product line; in fact, far from playing clubs manufactured in some überfactory churning out clubs for all comers, Rory’s new sticks are likely to be handmade Nike-skinned replicas of his successful Titleist clubs, and the ball he plays may be a finely-tuned special, custom-crafted to his liking – the goal is for him to win with the Swoosh on display, and the details of what he uses to get there will probably never be known outside his immediate circle.
McIlroy rubbed a little salt in the wound for his former friends at Titleist with comments he made after his victory at the Dubai Championship Sunday. Asked what he would do with his clubs now that he had played his last round with them, he responded (laughing), “I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll keep them as a bit of a memento.” 


Of course, you can’t talk about Rory McIlroy these days without also talking about Tiger Woods. Not only are the two knee-deep in a palsy-walsy “bromance” of a sort that would have been unthinkable for Woods to get involved in – at least with a competitive rival – in his glory days, they are going to be stablemates in the Nike Golf empire.

With three wins – but no majors – on his record in 2012, and a new wunderkind potentially relegating him to a second-fiddle position at Nike, speculation about what lies ahead for a sputtering Tiger Woods is the subject of much discussion in golf circles these days. Johnny also had something to say about what’s to come for Tiger:
“I think Tiger will have a good year; obviously he’s due to win a Masters. If he can win a Masters and get that monkey [off his back]…The old career is gone – it’s like it’s past history; somebody else did it. Now he’s got kind of a new time of his life, which just about every golfer goes through from 35 on. It’ll be interesting to see if he can get the little bugs out of his head, the worries and this and that.” 
“Right now the young guys aren’t scared of him, that’s the big difference. Before everybody was scared to death of him, but now it’s sort of like ‘Yeah, yeah, you were great, unbelievably great, but that was before – now it’s our turn.’ That’s what he’s got to overcome.”
Love him or hate him – there is rarely any middle ground – Johnny Miller is always worth listening to. When he’s in the mood to talk he’ll tell you exactly what he’s thinking, and even if you don’t agree with what he says, you have to admit that there are few in the world of golf who have as much credibility to back up their opinions.