TROON, Scotland — He was the skinny, blond kid from out in the avenues, a student at San Francisco’s Lincoln High, not far from the Coast, just another golfer in a school rich with them.
Some you might not remember or ever knew, but they could play, people such as Bob Lunn, who won the Amateur Pub Links, Doug Nelson, Ron O’Connor and Tom O’Kane. And one person you certainly would know, Johnny Miller.
He’s 69 now, a grandfather many times over, and as famous for holding a microphone as once he was for holding a 5-iron, and damn, the way as a 19-year-old amateur he finished eighth in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club not too far from his neighborhood and then went on to win a U.S. Open and British Open, he certainly could hold a club.
So could that other Lincoln alumnus, the late Ken Venturi, who won the U.S. Open in 1964 at Congressional, nine years before Miller, with his wondrous final-round 63, did it at Oakmont, where of course, the 2016 U.S. Open was held last month.
But it’s the other Open, the 145th Open Championship, as its known, here at Troon, on the Firth of Clyde, 35 miles southwest of Glasgow, which is Miller’s immediate concern. He has been, with Bill Hicks, one of the two main golf voices for NBC Sports.
The network in a shocking shuffle lost the U.S. Open after decades. But out of the gloom, it picked up the British Open, and Miller again is able to ruminate, analyze and — honest to the core — criticize.
“I used to say the same things about myself,” Miller told us once when players complained about his painfully negative observations. Which, indeed, he did.
Golfers, from hackers to pros, are loath to call a shank — when a ball is hit dead right off the face of a club — a shank, employing a euphemism such as “lateral.” But back in the ’70s, when Miller was one of the game’s best, and in a battle with Jack Nicklaus in the then Crosby Pro-Am, he smacked one dead right on 16 at Pebble Beach.
“Wasn’t that a nice little shank?” he said in the press room.
What he said a few days ago in a pre-Open session held by NBC and involving Miller, Nick Faldo and others from the NBC and Golf Channel team, was the back nine at Troon is “brutal — just hard holes period.” As if any Open course ever is easy.
“Troon is a little like Pebble Beach,” said Miller, alluding to a place he won three times as a pro and the 1968 California Amateur. “At Pebble the first seven holes are quite easy, and then you hang on to your shorts … So it’s a very interesting course. It’s pretty cool because you can get off to a great start, and you just have to have ball-striking from there.”
Meaning results may depend on the purity of the swing. You can bump it around a little bit, because links golf — the Open always is held on linksland, the firm turf once under the sea — is played as much on the ground as in the air. Yet if your shots are crooked, finding bunkers and deep rough, you’ll shoot poorly.
“But whatever you do, you’ve got to make the putts,” said Miller. “That’s why Tom Watson won five times. Guys that won multiple times know the adage: When you’re in trouble, get out of trouble.”
And if they don’t, Johnny Miller will tell us why — candidly as always.