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Miller breathes life into golf with unvarnished opinion

The star of this weekend’s U.S. Open at Oakmont in my book wasn’t Angel Cabrera of Argentina, Jim Furyk or Tiger Woods. It was Johnny Miller, the best commentator in golf.

It isn’t as though he’s just made a name for himself. He had the greatest single round of golf in major championship history, a 63 while winning the Open at Oakmont in 1973. And he’s been calling golf on NBC for 18 years. But it’s about time he gets credit for being more than just the sport’s resident shock jock.

Last year when Phil Mickelson self-destructed on the last hole of the Open, Miller created a tempest by accusing him of “crazy shot selection” and declaring that Ben Hogan had “officially rolled over in his grave.” Wednesday night at 10, HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” is dedicating a major segment to Miller and the consternation he’s created.

Miller is an enormous breath of fresh air in a wonderful sport than can stand some. His candor is invigorating because of its rarity. And his analysis and judgments are uncannily accurate because he does more homework than anyone else. He talks to players on the practice green before each round; he camps out at the practice tee afterward. He works dawn to dusk and is secure in his skin — rare qualities these days.

In the HBO segment Wednesday, Miller says: “The reason golf is the greatest game in the world is –what do you think? It’s because it’s the easiest game to choke on. You have all this time for a million little hauntings in your head, all the past junk you’ve done, but nobody says it.”

Anyone who has played more than a few rounds of golf knows this is true.

I didn’t hear Miller use the “choke” word this past weekend, but he expressed plenty of unvarnished opinion. NBC prominently reported the fact that in the 12 times Woods has led a major after 54 holes he has 12 wins, but in the 28 times he has trailed in a major after three rounds he has zero.

“It’s amazing,” Miller said of Woods late in Sunday’s round. “He’s had a million opportunities to finally win a major coming from behind, and he just won’t take advantage of it!”

It’s becoming one of the great Tiger’s legacies. He’s the only golfer bold enough to wear a bright red shirt on the final day — the color of blood, anger and willingness to face a challenge. But he loses his bite when he’s behind.

NBA DEBACLE — I don’t think you’d want to be commissioner David Stern this week. His league suffered an utter rout, ratings-wise and artistically, in the Finals.

The Spurs’ four-game sweep of the Cavs on ESPN-owned ABC finished with a record-low 6.2 rating. That’s worse than the league’s previous low, 6.5 for the Spurs’ six-game defeat of the Nets in 2003. The NBA is losing America.

I found the games painful to watch at times. This was the NBA’s showcase? I wonder how many viewers in Las Vegas bailed out of Game 4 for “Seinfeld” reruns or “Antiques Roadshow.” It got to the point where ABC seemed to show as many shots of Eva Longoria, Spurs star Tony Parker’s fiancee from “Desperate Housewives,” as it did of Parker.

The NBA should pick up an idea baseball once considered and contract its number of teams to concentrate talent. Eliminate the following teams in each division: Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats in the East; New Orleans Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers in the West.

Otherwise the NBA could be headed toward NHL irrelevancy. NASCAR already is the country’s third major sport.

DOUBLE TALK — “Because of his nature” most baseball fans “are absolutely confused as to how to react to Barry Bonds” in his attempt to break Hank Aaron’s home-run record, Fox’s Tim McCarver said the other day.

“The man has mastered the art of appearing indifferent about the controversy that surrounds him, as well as his quest for the record,” McCarver added. “The fans care deeply about the record itself and know that they’re watching history, but when the guy on stage appears not to care one way or the other, it’s very difficult to get behind him.”

What gobbledygook! The fans aren’t confused by Bonds’ “nature.” They don’t like him because he’s a cheat.

Bill Taaffe is a former award-winning TV-radio sports columnist for Sports Illustrated. His column is published Tuesday. He can be reached at taaffe-reviewjournal@earthlink.net.

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