After a Four-Year Slide to Oblivion, John Miller Finally Beats the Bogeyman

updated 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 01:00AM

Having since January fine-tuned their games and burnished their tans while divvying up $4 million in purses, the 200-odd men whose vocation is big league golf are ready for the real tour to begin this week at the Masters in Augusta, Ga. An invitation-only event, it is one of the sport's four major championships and, as such, its favorites are not the phenoms of February but tested superstars. So how come one leading contender is Johnny Miller, whose career collapsed four years ago? Somehow his swing survived what Miller calls "the mini male menopause" in an athlete's life—turning 30—and he has won two tournaments, and $133,653, in the past 15 weeks.

Success used to always come that easily. In the mid-'70s John Laurence Miller routinely shot in the low 60s; it was a scintillating eight-under-par 63 that catapulted him from six strokes back on the last afternoon to the 1973 U.S. Open crown, and the next year he won eight of the 21 U.S. events he entered. What with his prize money (lifetime: nearly $1.5 million) and manager Ed Barner's shrewd packaging (Johnny used his surfer's looks to hype products from menswear to orange juice to mattresses to Fords), Miller was grossing seven figures a year. It was often assumed that he would supplant Jack Nicklaus as golf's main man, just as Nicklaus had succeeded Arnold Palmer.

But in 1978, four years after having earned a tour-topping $353,021, Johnny cashed checks for all of $17,440—less than his expenses. He tends to blame the bellyflop on aging ("My brain knew what to do, but my body wouldn't cooperate") and fatherhood ("It was hard to get on a plane, leaving my wife to cope with the kids; and when I was home, it was hard to practice because I just had to provide some relief for her"). Wife Linda, 32, concurs—up to a point. "The children were very verbal and would blurt out, 'Daddy, I don't want you to go,' " she says. "So he would leave feeling guilty. And once he was gone the children would blame me if things went wrong at home, and that would get me down." But Linda also feels that Johnny's lucrative long-term contracts had their own catch-22s: "They required him to play a minimum number of tournaments each year. It seemed that as his game got worse, the sponsors put on more and more pressure. It was a terribly painful time for me," Linda continues, "because I could see the failures eating away at John. Yet there wasn't much I could do—I couldn't make the putts drop."

More than once, Miller considered giving up the game he'd been playing since age 5, but his ego wouldn't let him. "I knew I had been born with talent and that I shouldn't give up so easily," he says, and his devout faith in the Mormon church was another factor. "When I started talking retirement, a friend told me, 'John, without golf to open doors for you, you'll be spending a lot of time teaching Sunday school like the rest of us.' "

So Miller buckled down. Symbolically, he now prefers to be called "John" rather than "Johnny." Also, after having long relied on natural ability, he began to log serious time on the practice tee. As a result, last year he won his first event since 1976 and pushed his winnings back into six figures ($127,-117). Miller's endorsement contracts have been rewritten so that he's free to choose how often he competes. "I might not make as much money this way," he says, "but I'll be more my own man. I've learned the hard way that if you don't take control of your life, your life will take control of you."

Despite his comeback, Miller, at 33, is already planning for his eventual retirement. Both he and Linda have decided to finish college; they met at Brigham Young University, but he dropped out after six semesters to turn pro and she later left, a few credits shy of a sociology degree, to marry him. They have sold their dream house in Napa, Calif. and this summer will move to Mapleton, Utah, where they've purchased a home near the BYU campus from fellow golfer (and Mormon) Billy Casper. The Millers will attend classes as their schedules permit.

For the moment, though, John's attention is focused on the 18 holes at Augusta National. Miller has won 28 tournaments, including the coveted U.S. and British Opens, but not the Masters. As much as he yearns for the ceremonial green jacket that will bedeck the champion this Sunday afternoon, he says, with uncharacteristic caution, "It won't be necessary for me to win this year. I just don't want to blow it." But then John Miller's travails of the recent past would sober anyone.

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