Johnny Miller: A Sort Of Golfing Nirvana

For a brief spell in the mid 1970s, Johnny Miller produced some golf that was on a higher plane

Johnny Miller
Johnny Miller playing in The Open Championship of 1976
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Coming into the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont in Pittsburgh, John Laurence or “Johnny” Miller had just two victories in four years on the PGA Tour.

He played the first two rounds at Oakmont with crowd favourite Arnold Palmer and fared well – two under par through 36-holes. But, a third round 76 seemingly took him out of the running. He began the final day six off the pace and it looked as though the contest would be decided between the usual protagonists – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player.

But Miller hadn’t read the script. He blistered around Oakmont in just 63 shots (eight-under-par,) hitting all 18 greens in regulation to win by a single stroke. It’s widely considered the finest round in U.S. Open history. Miller was instantly elevated to the top echelon of golf’s hierarchy.

The Early Days

Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller in 1971

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Miller was born in San Francisco in 1947 and, under the guidance of his father Larry, began to display an aptitude for golf at a young age. In 1961 he was given membership of the Olympic Club and he quickly became the top player on their junior team. He won the 1963 San Francisco junior championship and, in 1964, claimed the U.S. Junior Amateur title.

Miller went to Brigham Young University and, in his first year, he qualified for the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. He finished the week as leading amateur in a tie for eighth. He turned pro in 1969 and, despite that lack of early victories, was well known in the golfing world by the time he travelled to Oakmont in 1973. He’d finished in a tie for second at the 1971 Masters then a tie for fifth at the U.S. Open the same year.

The Desert Fox

Johnny Miller

The Desert Fox

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After Oakmont, Miller enjoyed three years at the absolute pinnacle of the game. In 1974 he won eight tournaments on the PGA Tour, topping the money list with ease. In 1975, he successfully defended his title at the Phoenix Open, winning by an incredible 14 shots. The following week he shot a 61 in the final round of the Tucson Open to defend that title by nine. “It was sort of golfing nirvana,” Miller said. “I'd say my average iron shot for those three months in 1975 was within five feet of my chosen line.”

Miller’s dominance in Arizona earned him the nickname, “The Desert Fox.” He’d go on to win two more Tucson Opens in 1976 and 1981. Another event Miller excelled in was The Open Championship. Between 1973 and 1977 he finished in the top-10 every single year.

Open Glory

Johnny Miller

Miller shakes Seve's hand at Royal Birkdale

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The American came to Royal Birkdale in 1976 as one of the favourites but after three rounds all eyes were on a young Spaniard called Severiano Ballesteros - the 19-year-old led Miller by two going into the last day.

But, the young Matador would not outdo the Desert Fox. Drawing on the confidence generated by three years at the top of the golfing pile, Miller scorched round Birkdale in a course record 66. Ballesteros fought hard but could not live with the pace and Miller won by six.

After his triumph on the Lancashire coast, Miller’s golf went into decline and he failed to win again for three years. The Californian’s priorities changed when the first of his six children was born in 1977.

Miller won intermittently through the 1980s and his last PGA Tour title came in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am of 1994.

By that time Miller was spending more time in the commentary booth than on the course. Since 1990 Miller has given American golf viewers a knowledgeable but often brutally frank picture of the pro game. He was the first man to start referring to specific players as chokers and, during the playoff for the 2008 U.S. Open, he described Rocco Mediate as, “looking like the guy who cleans Tiger Woods’ pool.”

Miller’s career has been one of flamboyance both on course and off. He may now be best known for his controversial commentary but his fans will always remember those halcyon days in the mid-70s when the Desert Fox was untouchable.

Fact Box

Date of birth: April 29, 1947
Place of birth: San Francisco, California
Amateur record: 1964 US Junior Amateur Champion Finished as leading amateur in 1966 US Open
Professional highlights: 31 Tournament victories including 25 PGA Tour titles 1973 US Open Champion 1976 Open Champion Member of winning US Ryder Cup teams of 1975 and 1981 105 top-ten finishes on PGA Tour
Quote: “In golf's modern era, it's commonly understood that no player has ever achieved the brief but memorable brilliance of Johnny Miller.” – World Golf Hall of Fame

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?