When the PGA of America announces its plan in the next few months to make a contribution to each U.S. Ryder Cup player's favorite charity, it might be wise to include NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller on its list. After all, didn't Miller help provide the proper bulletin-board motivation for the Americans' comeback victory against Europe last Sunday?
If you listened to some of the rabbit-eared American players after their stirring victory, you had the feeling that they were playing not only for their teammates and country, but that they also were spurred by some of Miller's comments about them during Saturday's telecast from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
On Saturday, with Justin Leonard struggling for a second consecutive day, Miller said on the air: "Justin needs to go back home and watch on TV. He has nothing going for him."
On Sunday, Leonard made a 45-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole to clinch the final half-point the Americans needed to win the Cup, then made it clear during an interview on the 18th green how he felt about Miller's comments.
Leonard set his jaw, stared into a camera and said, "I think it's probably a good thing I didn't go home."
American Jim Furyk also was unhappy with Miller for describing him as an underdog in his singles contest against 19-year-old Sergio Garcia, a legitimate comment considering Garcia was 3-0-1 in the competition and Furyk hadn't won a match. Furyk dominated Garcia, and said afterward: "I really didn't appreciate hearing what [Miller] said. . . . I'd just like to give him a hard time."
"I don't think Johnny inspired us," Davis Love III said. "He just didn't believe in us."
The players are entitled to their opinions about Miller, but it's time for most of them to grow up and get real. The last time we looked, Miller was being paid a lot of money by NBC to analyze golf and voice strong opinions, even if they occasionally sting the ears of the people he is covering.
Anyone who watched the first two days of the matches had to be thinking to themselves much of what Miller had the courage to say to a national audience. Several of the U.S. players, including Leonard, were playing poorly and getting steamrolled.
Miller always has tended to rub some players the wrong way. No one likes to hear themselves being criticized--particularly golfers, whose egos are among the largest in all of sports. In 1991, Miller nearly gave up his analyst's job after Paul Azinger was very critical of his work during the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C. Miller had his attorney send a letter to NBC saying he would not be honoring the option in his contract to continue.
NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol flew to the West Coast and, with the help of Miller's wife, Linda, convinced him to stay the course.
"Johnny is unequivocally the best analyst in television sports ever," Ebersol said yesterday. "Not only does he have incredible openness and honesty and the feeling that he's only there for the viewer, he's also the most prescient analyst who ever lived. He tells you what's going to happen before it happens."
Ebersol said Miller's work ethic since he joined the network in 1990 after a brilliant playing career has never changed. He is often up before dawn walking the course with the greenskeeper or course superintendent, studying pin placements and nuances of greens. And he has never been shy about approaching players who have a problem with him and hashing it out face-to-face. Asked about the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup players' criticism of Miller, Ebersol said: "On Saturday, I think they used something that was out of their little group as motivation. I don't think he did anything wrong. . . . Johnny is not there for them. He's there for the viewer."
Don Ohlmeyer, a longtime producer of sports on television, is also is a huge Miller fan. He said he thought Miller's comment about Leonard needing to go home probably was the result of spending so many hours doing live television that day. "I'd just chalk it up to being tired," Ohlmeyer said. "He was just trying to say he wasn't playing very well, and he let one get away with a poor choice of words.
"I watched just about every minute of it for three days, and no one was more excited about the Americans' comeback than Johnny. He pretty much laid out the way it could happen when they went on the air Sunday morning. And as the day went along, you could hear his enthusiasm on the air."
When Leonard made his clinching putt at the 17th hole, and a huge celebration by the U.S. contingent ensued on the 17th green, Miller also was quick to point out what has become a major issue, the "really poor sportsmanship" the Americans exhibited, given that Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal still had a putt to keep his match and the competition alive.
To Miller's credit, late in Sunday's broadcast, he did not back off from what he had said about the American players' early performance.
"I don't think necessarily I was wrong," he said. "I try to call them like I see them. I never lost faith the U.S. could pull this out, and there's nobody who pulls harder for the U.S. team than me. . . . Sometimes the players don't love the way I do announcing. . . . So I try to represent viewers and the game."
He did all of that and more over three memorable days. It would be nice if analysts in all sports followed the same approach.