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Golf analyst Johnny Miller's return to the desert is no choking matter

It was his very first golf tournament sitting in a booth, with not a club or ball to be found. And he didn't like it one bit.

Johnny Miller always felt at home in the Coachella Valley, where he'd been the only player to win the Bob Hope Desert Classic back-to-back, in 1975-76, and he was thrilled every year to yuk it up with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

But on this particular Saturday at the Hope, in January 1990, Miller was completely out of his element on his first day of work for NBC.

"I didn't know what a teleprompter was, let alone how to use it," Miller said on the phone as he and the NBC crew prepared for a return to the desert this week, after a 17-year absence, for the CareerBuilder Challenge broadcasts on Golf Channel.

"I did my homework. I studied the courses and the players. But I didn't know what I was doing. After the first day, I said, 'I think I'm going to take a hike.'

"I told my manager, 'Tell those guys this is not for me. I'm not an announcer, I'm a player.' It was a shock to not be teeing it up. That was sort of hard to make that transition."

Only 24 hours later, Miller found his announcing sweet spot with one of those blunt, off-the-cuff observations that have defined his broadcasting career the way his tousled blond hair and flashy plaid pants set him apart in a 25-win Hall of Fame run.

With Miller's good friend, Peter Jacobsen, needing birdie on the 18th hole to win and considering a long-iron second shot, over water, from a hanging lie, Miller uttered a word never heard on a golf broadcast: "choke."

Miller cautioned that this was the kind of shot someone could choke on. He didn't say Jacobsen was going to choke, but seemingly everyone watching focused on that word.

"The harshest thing an announcer would say in those days was, 'That's not what he had in mind,'" longtime NBC golf producer Tommy Roy said. "If you're a viewer, it's like, no kidding. It took Johnny to step up and use the 'choke' word for the first time. It's become part of the lexicon now."

Jacobsen pulled off the shot, made birdie and won, while Miller ushered in a new era in golf television. He opened the door for the offbeat musings of Nick Faldo, for comedic analysts such as David Feherty and Gary McCord, and for Brandel Chamblee to chastise the game's most powerful player, Tiger Woods, if he sees fit.

"I know people were rolling their eyes," Miller said. "They're thinking, 'Holy mackerel, this guy is going to be the lead analyst?' The players went, 'Uh-oh.' The press went crazy with it. … I was saying what people were thinking. It's the way I talked about my own game, and if I didn't say it, I wasn't being myself."

On that Sunday, Jacobsen had barely finished lifting the trophy when his friends were in his ear saying that Miller said he would choke. Jacobsen couldn't believe it, but the two would go months without seeing each other, adding to speculation there was a feud.

Now a teammate of Miller's on the NBC/Golf Channel team, Jacobsen refutes it. He said he watched a replay and understood that Miller was simply informing the viewer while building the drama.

"Johnny gets misunderstood a lot," Jacobsen said.

Miller, 68, colorfully described his early broadcast career as "a rough rock rolling down a streambed. I'm a little more polished that I was in 1990." The 1973 U.S. Open champion said believes he's mellowed somewhat through the years and isn't as quick to shoot from the hip or deem someone is choking until clear signs point to it.

But to back off too much would be to dilute what makes him special.

"He's been the face of NBC golf," Roy said. "He's been everything to us. We wouldn't have gotten the U.S. Open without Johnny. He helped raise the bar to give us legitimacy as a golf-covering network."

This is a special week for many of the NBC crew. Miller, Roy, anchor Dan Hicks, and on-course analysts Roger Maltbie and Gary Koch

are returning to the former Bob Hope tournament for the first time since NBC's last broadcast here in 1998.

"It brings back great memories," said Roy, who first worked the Hope as a runner for NBC in 1979. "It was a really big deal. It was the highest-rated golf tournament of the year, including the majors. The field was great; there were top-of-the-line celebrities."

For Jacobsen, there was nothing quite like having the traditional honor, as the defending champion, of playing with Bob Hope.

"One of the coolest things in my career," he said. "I count myself so lucky to have been playing through that time."

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com

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