Blue-collar player shares the stage with golf royalty

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Open golf tournament provides wonderful extremes, and not just because it has a 670-yard hole this year at the Olympic Club.

Wednesday began with a heartfelt gesture by the U.S. Golf Assn., whose heartfelt gestures lean more toward providing a courtesy car back to the hotel for the amateur from South Dakota who just shot 87.

This one was different, special. They sat Jack Nicklaus in the front of a room and declared that the gold medal given to this tournament’s winner, and henceforth, will be called the Jack Nicklaus Medal. They also announced they were adding a room in Nicklaus’ honor, filled with Nicklaus memorabilia, at the USGA Museum in Fair Hills, N.J., and that they had partnered in a documentary, to be shown before the start of Sunday’s telecast, about Nicklaus’ first major victory.

When they showed him the medal and handed him the microphone, Nicklaus was appropriately moved.

“Kind of neat, isn’t it,” he said.

That victory at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club was in 1962, and in those 50 years since, thousands have come to the first tee on a first Thursday, filled with hope and dreams. Nicklaus won three more times, won the record 18 majors that Tiger Woods keeps chasing like a personal rabbit, and won his last major 24 years after his first. That was the 1986 Masters, where he says nobody expected him to win, “and I didn’t, either.”

Outside, the morning was chilly and foggy — this is, after all, San Francisco.

Several hundred yards away, while the Nicklaus interview went on, a man in tan slacks and a black, short-sleeve shirt scattered with logos, rolled putts on the practice green. Around him in tight little groups of players and caddies, some of them bundled up as if this were Siberia instead of San Francisco, were many of the top pros. Jim Furyk, Bill Haas and Luke Donald were all nearby.

Dennis Miller putted alone. It wasn’t that he wasn’t welcomed or that anybody was purposely being unfriendly. It was just that he really didn’t belong. He knew it, and had the others bothered to think about it, they would have known it too.

Miller is the flip side of Nicklaus. He is living his one moment in time; Nicklaus has lived thousands.

Nine days ago, Miller headed to the sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open. They played this one in Columbus, Ohio, where Nicklaus was born and raised. Miller wasn’t even certain he was going to play. At 42, he had tried 11 times and never made it. He is the director of golf at Mill Creek in Youngstown, Ohio, and he wasn’t even certain he was going to get to play in Columbus. In the regional tournament to make the sectionals, he had failed to finish in the top 14 and was the third alternate. He just had to show up and hope. Used to this disappointment, he didn’t even practice the day before. He went to an Cleveland Indians game.

But he got in, and then was tied for the last spot after 36 holes. He would have won it, but he missed an eight-foot birdie putt on the 35th hole.

It was still tied after three playoff holes when Miller putted for a birdie and the win, rolling a 20-footer from the fringe. What happened next was captured on film, as just about everything is these days, and brought Miller his moment in time.

The putt rolled at the hole, turned slightly right and stopped on the edge of the cup.

“I walked toward it and saw about a quarter inch of green between the ball and the cup,” Miller said Wednesday. “You have that happen all the time, a thousand times, and they never go in.”

This one did. The moment Miller turned his back to walk away in disgust, the ball dropped in. It was Tiger on the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005, all over again, minus the TV close-up of the Nike logo. Miller’s gallery of perhaps 25 went nuts.

“I didn’t see it,” Miller said. “I just reacted to them.”

Life changed for Miller the moment the ball dropped. The video found its way to the Internet and international buzz. Miller had to keep explaining that he was not the comedian of the same name.

Now that he is on-site, and his story has been told, things are calming down. But if he makes the cut, Ron Shelton will be on the next plane to start working on producing “Tin Cup II.”

In the main interview room, they were talking about which trophies to put in the new Nicklaus room in the museum. On the putting green, Miller was showing a reporter the logos on his shirt that represented hometown financial support. There was Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream & Yogurt, an investment company, a medical group.

He wore a San Francisco 49ers cap and made sure that wasn’t misconstrued as pandering to the fans here. The DeBartolo family, owner of the 49ers, is from Youngstown. Miller’s clubhead covers are 49ers logos.

Miller has taken this on with a sense of humor.

“I was happy until I played the golf course,” he said.

And, “They talk about the first six holes being impossible. How about all 18 of them?”

Thursday, it begins. The featured threesome is Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. Their gallery will include half the Bay Area.

Nicklaus’ Wednesday morning words will resonate all weekend: “The golf course is not supposed to suit your game. You are supposed to suit your game to the golf course.”

And Miller will probably shoot 85 and get one of those courtesy car rides.

But he’ll never stop smiling.