Much was made of the way Jack Nicklaus handled himself here this week in the face of a 79-74-and-out. And, in fact, the leader of the Pack did hold up splendidly despite his embarassment, meeting the situation head-on with the same style and grace he displays when he's playing well.
But what about Johnny Miller? The 31-year-old shooting star of the early '70s? It has been more than two years since Miller won his last tournament, the 1976 British Open. His earnings plummeted from $353,021 in 1974 to $61,025 last year, and this season showed little improvement, until recently.
Yet Miller, has refused to hibernate. He stood up to the endless pattern of questioning splendidly. "I have no one to blame for what's happened but myself, for whatever has gone wrong," he said, about 1000 times a year. "No job is easy. You have to work at golf, and maybe I wasn't always willing to do that as much as I should have. Maybe I began to take some things for granted, once I'd established myself. It's like the guy playing the slot machine. When you're winning you start to think the money will keep pouring out forever. You don't realize how fine a line there is between being mediocre and being good."
Part of Miller's problem may have been his family. He was never "one of the boys" on the PGA Tour. He preferred being with his wife and children.
"My age is the real menopause in a man's life." Miller observed recently."You get to doing something for eight, nine years and you think it's what you really want to do. I had all my kids (John, 7; Kelly, 6; Casi, 4, and Scott, 2) and it was hard to leave them. Nicklaus experienced the same thing. When the kids started going to school, when they couldn't travel with you any more. I found a motel room can be very lonely. I didn't realize how lonely it could be. I got to thinking: is this what really want to do?"
It was. And it is, Miller wants desperately to rescale the heights. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that Miller would come out of the desert at the start of each season with both guns smoking, from the Phoenix and Tucson opens or the Bob Hope Classic. He captured the '75 Phoenix with an incredible 260 and the Tucson the same month with 263. If anyone could break 260 or a single-round 60, everyone agreed, it was this young man with the branding irons.
It was in '73 that Miller, seemingly out of contention, fired a 63 on the final day of the U.S. Open here at Oakmont to win, going away, at 279. His 63 could have been a 58, he was that close to the pin with his irons on 14 of the 18 holes.
In '74 Miller captured eight tour events.His '75 earnings held at $226,118 and '76 wasn't all that bad, thanks in large part to the British Open. But shortly thereafter the 6-foot-2, 180-pound blond from Napa, Calif., saw his game begin to disintegrate. The woods went first, then the putter and, eventually, even the brilliant irons.
"People keep asking me what happened. If I knew, don't you think I'd be the first person to tell the answer." Miller said. "But it's been a little better lately. I played respectably in the Open in Denver (68 and 69 in the middle rounds) and I can't be discouraged here (one-under through 36, one of only five players below part)."
Miller pulled a back muscle in a pro-am event the week after the Open. He needed more than a month before he could return to competition, participating only in the British Open "strictly for sponsorship reasons" and at Philadelphia before coming here. He still is far from overwhelmed by his improved efforts.
"I'm just playing my own tournaments" he said. "The way I'm playing I don't expect to win. I'm not saying I won't: just that if I was a betting man (as a Mormon he isn't) I wouldn't bet on me. My irons are okay but I'm not really hitting the ball that solid. I'm still not happy with the way I'm playing." yron Nelson has helped Miller reconstruct his game in recent months. Everyone tends to offer suggestions. Few have been helpful.
"Advice can be destructive" he warned. "Take (Bruce) Lietzke for instance. He started out like gangbusters but he had a slice and he eventually got to thinking this wasn't the pure way to do it - because somebody told him it wasn't pretty - and for a while he had trouble because he was trying to hit the ball straight. You know you look at a slice long enough it looks straight.
"If I was smart, I wouldn't play for half a year. I need to get things simulated in my mind. I wish, sometimes, I could work with someone for three, four or five straight months, working on one things, even if it was in a mediocre way."
"It's like I have a new swing all the time. I'm the only guy in this tournament who has tried 20 different things out there during the course of one round. I'm my own worst enemy in that I like to piddle around with my swing and this game is too tough to go around doing that. How do you get muscle memory with a new swing all the time?"
Miller can't have been too displeased with his 69-72 here this week, or with the two sharpest rounds recorded by any of the leaders in this year's Open.