- Bill Fields
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When the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf began three decades ago, golfers with games long closeted from public view, icons in storage, showed they could still play. At last week's 30th edition of the Legends, it was a bit like that for a rusty and creaky Johnny Miller, who brought his game from the NBC television tower to Savannah, Ga., to team with old friend Mike Reid in the Raphael division. Once a golfer, always a golfer.
Sure, it was an unofficial event for unofficial money, just 36 holes in a cart, but it was the closest Miller has come to the real thing since 1997 when he played the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and two Champions Tour events. Think Joe Morgan suiting up for the Reds.
Sixty might be the new 40, but Miller, who turns 60 April 29, feels his age. Before he started getting cortisone shots, his right elbow had been so painful he was reduced to swinging one-handed in corporate outings. "I was pretty good at that, but that isn't very impressive," he said. "It's nice to be healed enough that I can at least play with [my] kids. I didn't realize how much I missed at least having the option of playing versus not being able to play whether I [wanted to or not]. I'm grateful for that."
But his knees still ache, and he can feel the effects of a slipped disk from his back to his shins. "My back is totally killing me right now," Miller said after the first round, "just burning a hole through my L5 [vertebra] with the pain running down into my lower legs." Said his wife, Linda, "I think if his body would let him, he would like to play more. It's shot."
Miller's back was so tight when he woke up Friday morning he thought he was going to have to withdraw, but 10 hot towels and 1½ Lortabs for the pain and a driver loaded with 12 strips of lead tape -- "It was already F-0, and I probably made it about a G," he said, "so it would do all the work and I wouldn't have to use my body that much" -- got him through the day.
Three waggles, an early set, the upbeat swing tempo that contrasts with the mellow, even cadence of his voice -- yes, this was the same guy who won 25 PGA Tour events. Miller's putting isn't as suspect as it was in his 40s, though with a split-handed, claw style on a belly putter, it doesn't exactly inspire total confidence. "All right, I can quit now," he said to a gallery of 200 after sinking a 15-foot birdie on the second hole of the first round. Miller's right hand comes off the handle at impact on some longer putts, but he made five of his team's eight birdies. "My iron game got better at the end," Miller said. "I started to feel like a golfer. I didn't embarrass myself, that's for sure. I'm not bragging, but for as little as I play, my game is still reasonable. At least I don't have a yippy putter anymore, and my tee-to-green game is still OK."
Miller sprayed a few drives wide right but hit others with a tight draw down the middle. He rattled a long bunker shot off the flagstick after going for a par-5 green with a driver off the deck. The team opened with a 66 despite a sloppy double-bogey on the 18th hole. "We play that hole 500 times and probably never make a 6 again," Miller lamented. The duo followed it with a 67 to finish at 11-under par and in fifth place, seven shots behind Raphael winners Andy North and Tom Watson.
"He's just a phenom," said Reid. "I always looked up to him, and it's so fun to be together. But I had no idea what a sacrifice it is for him healthwise to get around. I thought a one-day pro-am, then two days in the cart, he could manage that. He's got a lot of wear and tear."
When Miller was asked before the tournament to assess his golf, he said, "I'm a very good fly fisherman." Two days inside the ropes, a nifty 7-iron approach to the final hole -- "That iron was pure," he said -- and a good reception from fans and fellow players alike got him thinking.
"I'm going to try to play occasionally if I can," Miller said. "This elbow killed me for seven years, and my back hasn't been good either. I'm going to try to get in a little better shape, lose a little more weight and see if that will strengthen my back. It was fun to see all these guys, and everybody seemed genuinely pleased to see me here. They could look at me like, 'That Miller doesn't support the senior tour,' but I think they know where I'm coming from. Somebody has got to do the announcing, and physically I've had problems."
At the very least, Miller is hoping to let his clubs do the talking again at next year's Legends. "I wish Johnny would come out and play more," said Legends winner Jay Haas. "I don't care what he shoots."
Johnny Miller makes a rare appearance on the Champions Tour and rediscovers some old feelings -- while feeling old.