He was the kid from The City, 19 years old and confident in his golf. But when the 1966 U.S. Open was set for his home course, the Olympic Club, he was so pessimistic about his chances of qualifying he didn’t even sign up a caddy.
In the end, the only bag Johnny Miller carried was his own, from the car to the rack outside the pro shop. A BYU student at the time, Miller managed to grab the last qualifying spot for the Open during an event in Utah. The legend had started.
Lean and wiry, his blond hair blowing free in the breeze, Miller rode a 5-wood and great skill to a tie for eighth, 12 shots behind Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer, but a shot ahead of the great Ben Hogan and three ahead of Gary Player. Low amateur, but still feeling a bit low because in his naiveté, Miller believed he would win.
From a distance of more than four decades, Miller, now 65, and a U.S. Open champion, as well as the most outspoken commentator in golf for NBC, studies this coming Open at Olympic and thinks about what was and what might have been.
Olympic is a private club, but Miller, taught by his father in the basement of their home when he was a tot, then by John Geertsen Sr. at San Francisco Club, showed so much promise he was given an invitation to become the first junior member whose parents didn’t belong. He would make the best use of that opportunity.
“I must have played a thousand rounds at Olympic over the years,” Miller said. “Sometimes a hundred a year.” He went to Lincoln High School, also alma mater of another U.S. Open champion, Ken Venturi. Imagine, two Open winners from the same public high school in San Francisco.
The first two rounds in ’66, Miller was paired with Harry Toscano, a tour player, and a little-known pro from Texas, Lee Trevino. In two years at Oak Hill, Trevino would be an Open champion.
“One of the straightest hitters,” Miller recalled of Trevino. “I didn’t pay much attention to him, but a bond developed when we were both on tour, a good relationship.”
After ’66, the Open didn’t return to Olympic until ’87, after Miller’s dominant years, the 1970s. He won the Open at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh in 1973 with that spectacular final round of 63 and won the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 1976.
“My one regret,” he said of a career which earned a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, “was the Open didn’t come to Olympic when I was playing well.”
Miller figures Olympic will confuse, maybe even ruin golfers who never have played it. No water or out-of-bounds, but fog, cool weather, more than 30,000 trees and some fairways with reverse camber, holes that dogleg left and lean right, or dogleg right and lean left.
“That start,” Miller said of the first six holes, “is going to destroy a lot of people. The greens are very slopey. It’s the quiet, low-key guys, who just keep hitting the ball straight, who will do well.”
Miller’s favorite hole is the par-5, 16th, now extended to 670 yards, the longest in Open history. “It’s iconic,” he said. “And with the old equipment it was really tough.”
So, as a golfer, was Johnny Miller.