When Johnny Miller drops the NBC mike for the last time this weekend, the golf world may honestly not know how to react.
An honest narrative about what goes on during the sport’s most high-tension moments didn’t happen until Miller became the network’s lead analyst 30 years ago. Players with fragile egos or a different interpretation of respect for the game pushed back from that start and, in recent times, complained that he overstayed his welcome.
But TV audiences knew the value of what he said, and they’ll likely never hear it again to the degree Miller was willing to deliver it.
Miller, 71, has had since October to contemplate his final TV assignment, which NBC decided to push back to Saturday’s third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Buried in the Super Bowl media buzz of the week, at a place where the boisterous crowd on the 16th hole attracts the most attention, Miller’s exit may not have the proper pomp or circumstance.
Truth be told, Miller always fed off the reaction of fans.
“When you go to New York or Boston, the people would always tell me, ‘Hey Jaaawwwny, keep telling it like it is!’” Miller said on a conference call with reporters last week. “People are starving for the truth. A lot of people don't want to go there.…
“That's why a guy like Charles Barkley has been around. He says a lot of wild stuff, but people like unexpected things also. Not just the standard things you expect the announcer to say.”
Miller wasn’t about shock value. The clips they’ll show on his Saturday farewell document his ability to know the mind of the golfer and see what troubles lie ahead.
A World Hall of Fame player with two major wins, 25 tour titles and two Ryder Cup championships, Miller combined gravitas with the personality of someone who didn’t take himself too seriously. He was true to himself, even if the truth crushed others.
The result was eight Sports Emmy nominations over a broadcasting career that covered 20 U.S. Opens, 14 Ryder Cups, three British Opens and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Dick Enberg, Miller’s partner for five years in the early 1990s, compared him favorably to his famous tennis broadcast mate, John McEnroe. Dan Hicks, Miller’s straight man for the last 20 years, seconded that similarity.
“McEnroe, sure, but it's a really short list,” Hicks said. “But there are all these guys that say things and look at the action and you can almost predict what they're going to say.… Johnny always gives a different angle to it.”
Candor can be confused with righteousness, and that’s what often happened over the years.
The phrases Miller will be remembered for shouldn’t define him. “Choke” is at the top of the list. He once said Craig Parry’s swing would make Ben Hogan “puke.” Moments after Rickie Fowler captured the 2017 Honda Classic, Miller opined: “Obviously a win is a win but you’ve got to learn to finish out Sundays like a true champion. He hasn’t learned that yet.”
If he rattled a cage too much, Miller would seek out a golfer and explain what he meant. Even apologize if feelings were hurt.
Paul Azinger, Miller’s replacement starting Sunday, has not been as comfortable delivering criticism on Fox’s major telecasts thus far. Nick Faldo comes across as someone peering out of CBS’ tower with a cup of tea and trying to make some pithy observation under his breath. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee has the right idea, but lacks any real austerity.
None can measure up to Miller when all is said and analyzed. Golf might think it can go back to being a safe space as Miller ends this run. Viewers shouldn’t let it go easily.
“Johnny is the single best broadcaster in the history of golf,” Hicks said. “There is no way you can question that. I think he's had the biggest impact on the business.”
► The tenacity of ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter comes across as the interview subject on a new HBO “Real Sports” feature (Tuesday, 10 p.m.), especially when he speaks about times co-workers suggest he back off an exclusive that he knows to be accurate. Schefter also explains to reporter Jon Frankel how he ends up sometimes spending hours a day on various platforms: “ESPN owns me and is not shy about exercising its ownership.”
► Fox Sports’ promotion of Brad Zager as executive producer and head of production and operations starting Feb. 1 — basically making him responsible for the look, sound and editorial content of game broadcasts — should be a lesson about perseverance in the sports TV business. Zager started as a production assistant intern on pre-game shows for the Lakers and Dodgers in the late ’90s. He produced Dodgers games with Vin Scully on Prime Ticket long before his 30th birthday. He never went to college, except for a few classes at Santa Monica College. “I tell everyone now that I went to Fox Sports Net University,” the Detroit native has said. “If ever there was a story of all the pieces falling into place, it's this one.” As Fox Sports rearranges its management team in the wake of shedding its regional sports networks, Zager replaces John Entz, who had been overseeing live sports for the last seven years.
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