Johnny Miller Q&A - The Ryder Cup
THE POST Who's the favorite?
MILLER I would say the Europeans, on paper, are definitely the favorites. But when you flip a coin in the air and it keeps coming up heads, you'd think it's got to come up tails sometime. It almost seems like it's due for the Americans to make those putts and get off to a good start and play better in best-ball.
You'd think best-ball (fourballs, that would be something that the U.S. would be good at because that's basically what you play when you go out on Tour and a have a match on Monday or Tuesday. But I would say, to answer your question, that I would believe – hunch-wise – that the U.S. is going to win. But if you do it analytically, the U.S. is probably the underdog.
THE POST Yet, the Europeans have usually somehow managed to portray themselves as the underdogs. And they've made that work to their advantage.
MILLER It seems to be in match play, historically, a slight advantage to be the underdog. It's like, "Hey, man, what have I got to lose? I'm gonna make this sidehill putt, instead of cozying it down there." It's like, "Gee, I get to play Tiger Woods? If I lose, I'm supposed to lose."
THE POST Psychological advantage to Euros?
MILLER When you analyze what goes on in Europe, they're talking about the Ryder Cup 52 weeks out of the year in the national papers. It's much bigger over there than it is in the U.S. To make the team is a huge honor and these guys would give their right arm basically to win a Ryder Cup. And the joy that they have when they do, it's a big celebration.
And when the U.S. wins, the attitude is, "Well, it's about time we won." There's a big difference in the celebrations of the two. The one good thing for the U.S. is it seems like they have really gotten to know each other playing in The Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup and there's a lot of old-standing friendships.
"...these guys (Europeans) would give their right arm basically to win a Ryder Cup. And the joy that they have when they do, it's a big celebration."
THE POST Even Tiger and Phil?
MILLER Even the friendship between Tiger and Phil, which was pretty icy, is pretty good. I think they've finally gotten a little like Arnold and Jack, who were pretty big rivals and then they got to a point in their careers after all those matches that they started the thing, "Well, I like you. And I'm pulling for you."
And I think that's really helpful that these guys are pulling for each other a lot more. It's not quite so "professional." It's more friendly. And that's what you have in Europe. They party together. They travel together. They stay in the same hotels. Not like America, where they jump in their planes and they don't hang out together at all.
THE POST Since you opened up Pandora's Box a little bit on the warming of Tiger and Phil: Would you ever do what Hal Sutton did at Oakland Hills in 2004 and pair Tiger and Phil in a Ryder Cup match?
MILLER I wouldn't do it because you'd sure be asking, as a captain, for ... I mean Hal is a smart guy. But he will always be remembered as, "You've got to be kidding me, Hal. hat were you thinking?"
In reality, Tiger has played quite poorly in the Ryder Cup and Phil hasn't been too brilliant, either. The play of Tiger and Phil has not really carried the U.S. in all these Ryder Cups. And if they would have been playing as good as they should have, especially Tiger, it would have given the whole team room a completely different atmosphere. But when your main guys have sort of a dismal record, it's sort of like, "Dang, that's our best shot and he's losing."
I would love to see a Ryder Cup where those guys basically said, "You watch, we're not losing." But you wouldn't want to put them together because they really should win. If they played three matches without each other, it doesn't matter what team they have, they should win two out of the three points. But if you put them together, they can only win one point. It eliminates the chance to win more than one point. And if they lose, it's really negative to the U.S.
THE POST On the subject of strategy, are the roles of the captains really important or is that overrated?
MILLER You look at some of the captains ... Fred Couples in The Presidents Cup wasn't that strategic ... I think the captains can get too technical. Some of the guys will get in the team room and say, "You know, in the last four Ryder Cups on par 3s you guys have hit it to the right of the green 67 percent of the time." And the guys are like, "Hey, come on. I don't really need to hear all that crap." These captains were getting all these stats. I won't say who because they're friends. But these stats ... It was like, "Hey, you're not playing the game anymore. Go play the game. And win."
In match play, most of the matches are won before they even tee off. The guy with the bigger will to win and the guy who just literally says, "I am not gonna lose today," is very hard to beat. And that's something not many people have. There are not many great match players. Some guys just, literally, not only do they make the pressure putts but the will to win is so amazing that they just don't lose.
That's what I would focus on a little bit. A little bit like what Azinger did.
He gave them a new look, which made them get a little bit of hope. But, I think it's better with a Couples kind of approach. Or even Nicklaus. Nicklaus was sort of like, "Well, who do you want to play with, Joe Blow?" And he'd say, "I'll play with him." And he'd say, "Okay, you go play with him." That's more of a captain who does what the players want. I think they need a little guidance and not over-guidance.
"...superstars in golf aren't necessarily the sweetest guys in the world. They're professionally nice but they're not real sweet, chummy people."
THE POST Now the American captain has four picks. Does that make it harder? What would be your strategy with four captain's picks?
MILLER I would always go for the guys that were good putters. In match play, the guys that win usually are the guys that are the really good putters. Those guys drive the guys like me, the ballstrikers, crazy. It would drive me crazy to play against Tom Watson. I would be inside of him maybe 13 times out of 18 holes and he would beat me by a shot. So, I would definitely pick the guys like a Corey Pavin, who has the combination of, "You can't beat me. I'm tough. And I can putt the lights out." That's the kind of player I'd be looking for.
THE POST A lot of people think Scott Verplank fits that description, yet he's been left off several teams even though his Ryder Cup record is very good. A good putter and a tough guy.
MILLER No doubt about it. The ‘dern tough guys that can putt. It's that easy. You get the good-looking guys and oh, they hit it a mile and they have a beautiful swing and ... forget the nice guys! In match play, I don't want nice guys. In match play usually, I hate to say it, the guys who are really good in match play are guys who would just as soon let you fall in a lake and drown right there.
THE POST Tiger is then a kind of paradox in this context. He's not a nice guy that way but it is a team event and it has been suggested that his father brought him up and wired him to not be interested in having teammates.
MILLER I think there is some truth to that and I also I think even Tiger and Phil have touched on it and that is that the PGA of America is making an awful lot of money off of their star power. So in the deep recesses, and this is just my own opinion, at least for a while there, at least until they both fell in love with the whole idea, there was this, "Hey." They have rectified that (giving players a stipend to donate to the cause of their choice). So, I'm saying, it seems like, and it might be a coincidence, that the attitude among the stars has gotten a lot better since that has been initiated.
But the point that you made, that these guys are trained to be lone wolves – it's all about me and it's hard to get chummy and be a great champion, I would say superstars in golf aren't necessarily the sweetest guys in the world. They're professionally nice but they're not real sweet, chummy people.
"...superstars in golf aren't necessarily the sweetest guys in the world. They're professionally nice but they're not real sweet, chummy people."
THE POST And there are guys on both sides of the Atlantic that fit that description.
MILLER You're gonna get me in more trouble by the minute.
THE POST Well, some of that's a compliment. Faldo wasn't the nicest guy on the golf course. You know him fairly well. But that sure worked for him.
MILLER Most guys copied the Hogan attitude and some of them copied their swings to Hogan. And Hogan basically didn't want to get too chummy with anybody. That's the way he played his best golf. It's a fight out there and if you're not out there to shoot the bull and make the guy feel nice and relaxed and whatever.
THE POST And you?
MILLER I remember in college, I used to be nice to everybody and I decided one time to stop talking to everybody and I just started winning everything. So, instead of letting out my energy and idle conversation, I basically turned into Ben Hogan and my play really improved and it was really amazing. I was like a different golfer. Afterward, I would be very kind and friendly after the match, which I won. But it really did work. And, if I were captain, I might tell my guys, "Okay, when you get on the first tee, say, ‘Nice to see you,' and that's the last thing they hear from you until you say, ‘Sorry you lost.' "
THE POST You played in two Ryder Cups (1975 and 1981) and your captains were Dave Marr and Arnold Palmer. The U.S. won both of those Ryder Cups by large margins. What were they like as captains?
MILLER Back then it was such a foregone conclusion that the U.S. was gonna win that it didn't matter what the captains did, to be honest with you. They were just basically making sure everything ran smoothly.
THE POST When did that change?
MILLER It started at Kiawah (1991). That was a bit of a war. It was sort of like going to battle. I know it's supposed to be like for the goodwill of the game but the Ryder Cup has gotten to be more pressure than the U.S. Open.
THE POST What's the most important thing the captain can say?
MILLER I think the guys have to focus on the first three or four holes because in match play the first three or four holes is probably going to determine the match. If you get 2 down after four, the other guy's confidence grows and the hole grows in size. Pretty much whoever gets up early, it's pretty much a done deal.
And I think our guys seem tobe getting that down except at The Miracle At Brookline. It went the other way. You have to play smart and take advantage of the green-light holes, but on the tough holes, pars are pretty dang good scores. Instead of taking yourself out of the tough holes, play a little smarter on those holes. Do like Jack Nicklaus used to do after his practice round. He'd say, "Okay, these seven holes, I'm not even thinking about making a birdie. Par is almost like a birdie." I'd tell the guys, "Don't give in. Have faith that you can win this match."
But captains have probably a fivepercent impact.
"Back then it was such a foregone conclusion that the U.S. was gonna win that it didn't matter what the captains did..."
THE POST There are people who think the Ryder Cup took a wrong turn at Kiawah in 1991 and others thought all the elevated competitive animosities were a good thing.
MILLER The decorum is still very good. It's not like how tennis went down the drain with all the trash and the flipping off and guys screaming at umpires – Nastase, McEnroe and Connors. At first, everybody thought it was good ratings with everybody throwing around the F-bomb and all of that. But that kind of change, in the long run, ruins the sport.
The Ryder Cup, I think, is the opposite where guys are showing their raw emotions but their behavior is excellent. They just want it so bad. Golfers aren't used to celebrating together. I think everything that happens in the Ryder Cup is the purest form of emotion and it's the right thing to grow the game.
I really think what the Ryder Cup did for Europe and what it did for their players and their Tour is unbelievable. I don't think people have any idea. It's no coincidence that, looking at the world rankings, that all these (European) guys are in the top 10 or top 20. It's because of the Ryder Cup. It's not for any other reason except for the Ryder Cup.
THE POST Just the confidence that they've gained?
MILLER The confidence and the fact that, "Man, to be on that team I'll do anything I can work-wise and dedication- wise to get on that team, and that process turns these guys into great players.?
THE POST Will that ever change? Will the Ryder Cup always be more important to the Europeans?
MILLER I think right now it's pretty much a tie as to which side it's more important to. I really think it's a lot like Kiawah now in that the U.S. had lost several in a row. I can't honestly say, right now, that Europe has any more desire than the U.S. I'd say it's pretty much a draw right now. So, it's worked its way to the point where the (American) guys are thinking about the Ryder Cup. They can't wait to get on it. And it's really important that they get on winning matches, including Tiger and Phil – our superstars. These guys want to be part of that winning experience and the celebration and the palling around in the team room. It was there in 1991 at Kiawah and it's back to that same Kiawah right now. Like Kiawah revisited.
THE POST As a former American Ryder Cupper, do you find it difficult not root for the Americans during broadcasts?
MILLER A lot of the players don't like me because I don't sound like I am rooting for them. Professionally, I have to stay above that. Deep down, I am rooting for them big time, but you'd never know it by my inflection or what I'm saying on the air because I'm a professional. I know that sounds kind of cold. But I can't be doing that. Journalistically, you can't do that. You can't pull for one team or the other. Great shots are great shots whether it's an American or a European player doing it. To each his own. I'm as American as it gets. But, professionally, I have to do what I have to do.
THE POST Finally, what about the golf course, Medinah. Is there an advantage to one team or another?
MILLER I've heard this question for all these Ryder Cups: "This course ought to be good for the U.S., or it ought to be good for Europe." Whatever, it always comes down to that darn flat stick. The guys that win the Ryder Cup are the teams that are making the putts that are outside of eight feet. The team that makes those putts, those bonus putts – eight-footers, 15-footers. It really comes down to which team putts the best. I've seen it over and over. It's the flatstick. The hole starts shrinking for one team and it opens up for the other team. And I really believe it happens on the first day, on Friday. The scene is set early. The hole is either shrunk or it opens up.
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IN THE MAY 13, 2013 ISSUE