ALICE MILLER : Leading Lady of LPGA Rarely Satisfies Toughest Critic--Herself

Times Staff Writer

If Alice Miller weren’t such a nice, pleasant young woman, friendly to friend and foe alike, she could be real easy to dislike.

After all, how would you like to finish a golf tournament in second place, six shots back, and hear the winner say: “I guess I got a little sloppy.”

That is what Miller said after finishing six strokes ahead of Jane Blalock, Mary Beth Zimmerman and Beth Solomon in the Mayflower tournament--her fourth win on the Ladies Professional Golfers Assn. tour this year.


Or, after beating Nancy Lopez by eight shots in the $400,000 McDonald’s tournament, to have her say: “I’m not too happy with the way I’m hitting the ball. I haven’t been hitting it solid, and that tends to get on your nerves after a while.”

Oh yeah. How about the nerves of the women professionals who watched Miller shoot 68-68-68-68 and win with a record 16-under-par 272.

Or in yet another of her self-appraisals after winning the Nabisco Dinah Shore: “I don’t shoot low numbers much, just solid numbers.”

She said that after a final-round five-under-par 67 on the tough Mission Hills course in one of the most important women’s tournaments of the year.

Alice Miller wasn’t trying to sound conceited or cocky. That’s not her style. It’s just that she is so serious about her golf game, so determined to perfect it, that she rarely satisfies her severest critic--herself.

The 29-year-old Miller, who was raised in Marysville, Calif. (north of Sacramento) and graduated from Arizona State in 1978 with a degree in physical education, isn’t one of the LPGA glamour girls like Nancy Lopez or Jan Stephenson, or one of the Good Ol’ Gals like JoAnne Carner or Sandra Palmer, but her wholesome smile--a smile seen more and more this year in the winner’s circle--is rapidly becoming recognizable.

They know her at the bank, that’s for sure. In her first 18 tournaments this season she set a single-season money record of $318,250. When Carner set the old record of $310,299, it took her 33 tournaments. If Miller were on the men’s tour, her earnings would rank her fourth behind Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd.

Miller has so dominated the LPGA tour that she leads nearly every significant category. She tops runner-up Nancy Lopez by $34,941 in money-winning, she leads in top 10 finishes with 13, in sub-par rounds with 43, in Player of the Year points with 57 to Lopez’s 51, and in birdies per round. She also leads the LPGA point standings, in which the winner collects a $125,000 bonus. She already drives a Mazda RX-7 for having led the first of three seasonal segments. Only a poor tournament last week in the Mazda Hall of Fame championship, dropped her season scoring average to 71.15. Lopez leads with 71.0.

“It’s just amazing to me,” Miller said during a brief rest before this week’s U.S. Open at Baltusrol, N.J. “I’ve had to reset the goals I set for myself at the start of the year. It’s all so amazing, I don’t think I can comprehend yet what I’ve done.”

By that, she doesn’t think she hasn’t earned it. Although Miller labored in near anonymity for seven years on the LPGA tour, she never quit working, grinding away with dedication and determination that reached its fulfillment this year.

“This year is no overnight success story, but if it weren’t for Ed Oldfield, it would never have happened,” she said. “No matter how low I felt, or how poorly I was playing, he kept telling me over and over that changing my game would take time, but if I had faith in myself and in his teaching, I’d get there. Well, I guess he proved it this year when I broke through.”

Oldfield is the professional at the Glen View Golf Club in Golf, Ill., north of Chicago. A number of women touring pros have their games tuned by Oldfield, including Stephenson, Blalock and Betsy King, last year’s player of the year.

“I’ve been going to Ed for help since I was a senior at Arizona State,” Miller said. “We won the national championship when I was a freshman and then I became the No. 1 player on the team and all I could think about was becoming a professional. Then I hit a slump in my senior year and I was dropped off the traveling team. I was devastated. I even starting thinking about doing something else besides playing golf for a living when one of my teammates, Julie Stanger, suggested I look up Ed Oldfield.

“He took a look at me and said if I made the swing changes he outlined, and worked them into my game, I’d make it. People look for a simple reason why I’m doing so well, but there just isn’t any. I’ve worked and worked on every phase of my game. It’s taken seven years and what’s happened is that now when I miss-hit a shot, it still goes pretty straight. I’m consistent and with the winning, my attitude has changed. When the year started, I felt I was a contender and that I could probably finish near the top. Now I feel I can win any week.”

Despite this record half-year, Miller knows the frailties of the golf swing. She remembers what it was like to shoot in the 80s and barely make enough money to get to the next tournament. She also knows how the swing can come and go.

“I still don’t see myself as a dominant player, like Nancy (Lopez) or JoAnne (Carner),” she said. “This could be a one-year thing so I’m trying to keep everything in perspective.”

Before 1985, Miller had won just three tournaments in seven years and had won more than $100,000 in only two seasons. Her goals were to win $200,000, finish in the top five money winners and have a scoring average under 72.

“I figured if I could average under 72, the others would take care of themselves,” she said. Now that she has passed $200,000--and $300,000--and is assured of finishing in the top five and with a scoring average of 71, Miller has had to reset her goals.

“I’d like to win more than $400,000 and the Vare Trophy (for the lowest scoring average) would mean a lot to me, too. I’d like to keep my scoring average under 71. Of course, winning the U. S. Open would be like a dream come true. It would be like when I won the Dinah Shore. I’d been watching it on TV since I was a teen-ager and that was the one tournament I wanted to win.”

Her chances of winning the Open, which concludes today at Baltusrol, aren’t good, however. She trails leader Kathy Baker by 10 strokes after firing a 71 Saturday.

Miller got the golfing bug about the time she turned 13. She had been playing basketball, tennis and softball and her golfing parents suggested she attend a junior clinic at the Plumas Lake Country Club in Marysville to see what golf was like. George Twitchell, the head pro, picked her out of the group and convinced her she should try out for the boys high school golf team. In her senior year, she was No. 1 and voted most valuable player.

Her father was dean of admissions at Yuba Community College, so it was expected that his golfing daughter would go to school there, but her play in the U.S. Girls championship caught the attention of Arizona State Coach Judy Whitehouse and she was recruited by the Sun Devils.

That was 1973, when Miller was 17, and she played Amy Alcott in the quarterfinals and lost on the 19th hole. It was the only match in which Alcott, the eventual winner, was extended. Others in that tournament included Nancy Lopez, Carolyn Hill, Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Marianne Stangeland of Long Beach.

Miller is not married, but she thinks of herself as a family oriented golfer. Her family consists of her putter, Frances; her wedge, Louise; her caddy, Smiley Jenkins; and her friends in the LPGA’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“The girls in the Fellowship give one another a lot of support off the course. It’s not an easy life style traveling all the time and you need support. And when I’m on the course, Smiley and I talk to Frances and Louise like they were alive.”

Smiley is a longtime tour caddy, having carried the bag for Hall of Famer Sandra Haynie and former U.S. Open champion Hubert Green for years. Frances is a Ping Pal putter that has Miller ranked eighth in the LPGA putting category. Louise is a specially made 61-degree L-shaped wedge that Miller uses to escape potential bogeys or worse.

“Frances and Louise make up for a lot of bad shots,” Miller said. “It’s a good feeling to realize no matter how I hit them, I’m going to get it in the hole somehow. I don’t consider myself the best player on the tour, but right now I’m the best scorer--thanks to my family.”

She also has a legion of friends scattered around the country, people with whom she has played in one-day pro-ams that precede the LPGA tournaments.

Lila Grik, a former women’s champion at Los Serranos Country Club in Chino, has played in nearly every LPGA pro-am in Southern California in the past decade, and rates Miller as “one of the most cooperative, friendly and helpful partners I have ever met. I first played with her at Industry Hills in 1981 when she was not very well known and she hasn’t changed a bit. Everyone who has ever played with her wants her as a partner again.”

When Miller wants a rest from golf, she can usually be found where the Chicago Cubs are playing. She wears a Cubs warmup jacket, a present from pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. Two weeks ago, after winning her fourth tournament, she took a week off to watch the Cubs.

It may have been the wrong time. It was during their 13-game losing streak and maybe it was contagious. When Miller returned to the tour last week, she played her worst tournament of the year, finishing in a tie for 50th place.