The year was 1958, and if you’re a golf fan, you understand the significance of that year — especially if the first week of April means the Masters, which for any true golf fan, it does.
Lou Miller was 14 then. Having grown up in Augusta, Ga., he was aware of the annual golf tournament. He could tell you who won the 1956 Masters — “Ken Venturi was leading but he shot 80 on Sunday, and Jackie Burke won” — and he had recently started playing golf. But football and tennis were his sports. That would change.
“I had not fallen in love with golf then,” Miller said, grinning, “but I was having a romance” with the game.
Lou Miller says things like that, a lot. At 74, he has the bubbling enthusiasm of that long-ago 14-year-old; he remains as smitten with golf and the Masters as a lovesick teen. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
So: 1958. Golf historians know it as Arnold Palmer’s first of four victories at Augusta National. “That one was controversial,” said Miller, who with a golf-loving uncle was attending his first Masters. “The last round, (Palmer) had an embedded ball at the (par-3) 12th hole, and he played a provisional ball. He made par on that ball, double bogey on the first one.
“Then he eagled the (par-5) 13th hole, and oh, the roars!”
Ultimately, the Masters’ rules committee awarded Palmer his par at the 12th, and the soon-to-be “King” claimed his first Masters, beating out the hard-luck Venturi. Miller smiled at telling the story.
“That day, I became an instant member — a buck private — in Arnie’s Army,” he said with a laugh. “By the time I retired, I was probably a lieutenant colonel.”
Sixty years later, Miller, a former Columbia resident who now splits time between Bluffton and Highlands, N.C., is still in love with all things Masters. He hasn’t missed one since his first.
This week, as the golf world wonders if Tiger Woods can challenge again, if Dustin Johnson will win after an injury knocked him out before the tournament’s start last year, if Rory McIlroy can complete a career Grand Slam — this week, Lou Miller will be standing at the Augusta National gates before 8 a.m. on Monday for the 61st consecutive April.
After all that time, you might assume he has a routine. You’d be correct.
Friends and family call it the “Lou Miller Tour.” For years, Miller has used his three tournament badges to take someone to experience their first Masters. Richard Starks, a retired USC and high school football coach and Miller’s brother-in-law, has been along a number of times. Last year, Starks’ granddaughter made her inaugural trek.
“You’ll go and Lou will talk about the history, where everything important happened,” Starks said. “In the family, we call (an invitation from Miller) the Golden Phone Call. My son always says, ‘What day is the Golden Phone Call coming?”
Miller has this year’s guests lined up. One day, he’ll take a couple from Boca Raton, Fla. — the husband is battling cancer — and on Saturday, a doctor and friend from Highlands, Herb Plauche, and his son-in-law, Mike Monsur, will get the Miller treatment.
Jim Sargent explained how it goes. He's a Raleigh businessman who worked for Miller in the golf business and attended his first Masters, as Miller’s guest, in 1975, witnessing the legendary shootout between Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf.
“When they hit the grounds, the (first-timers) want to go to the driving range, but no,” Sargent said. “First, Lou’s going to walk the back nine … and you never stop (walking). You don’t take a chair, because you don’t sit down, you’re constantly moving. You wear track shoes because he’s covering so much ground.”
With Miller reciting moments in Masters lore along the way, his guests see Amen Corner; the “best driving range in golf”; the Eisenhower Cottage; various concession stands “if you’re hungry” (Miller’s go-to meal is a ham-and-cheese on rye; cost: .75); the clubhouse, where all can pose for photos next to the flower-bed map of the U.S. with its flagpole marking Augusta; the Par-3 Course …
“And then I ask, ‘what else do you want to see?’” Miller said. This whirlwind tour, he said, takes “about an hour and a half.” Bring your track shoes, indeed. “I get in my 25,000 steps,” Miller said, laughing.
At 74, he knows it will end … someday. “If I can’t walk, I won’t go,” he said. But then he starts waxing eloquent about the experience: “There’s nothing like smelling Augusta on Monday morning. Nothing like seeing someone for the first time” — he tears up momentarily — “seeing their awe. Because everyone, it exceeds their expectations.”
It’s been doing that to Miller for 60 years.
His big break
Lou Miller grew up in Augusta and nearby Lincolnton, Ga., then went to Presbyterian College to play football and tennis — “and came home to Augusta College to get my GPA up,” he said — before finishing at Georgia Southern. His golf “romance” flourished between his junior and senior years, and he played for the Eagles’ golf team his final year for coach Frank Radovich — who, Miller tells you, had been backup center to Wilt Chamberlain with the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. “He was a basketball assistant coach who babysat the golf team,” he said.
After college, Miller coached football in Baxley, Ga., as an assistant to his future business partner, Art Williams, another PC graduate. “They gave us memberships to the 9-hole country club, and after football season, all we did was play golf,” he said.
In Columbus, Ga., Miller coached and honed his golf skills. In 1969, he took an assistant professional job at Glen Arven Country Club in Thomasville, Ga., earning 0 a month while working 65-hour weeks. After a year at a club in New Jersey, he worked four years in Florida as director of golf for the Johns Island Club near Tallahassee.
Then, in 1976, came his big break.
Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, the “Mecca of American golf,” hired him as director of golf, where he got involved with the Golf Digest Schools, meeting such instructors as Bob Toski, Jim Flick, Davis Love Jr., Jack Lumpkin and Peter Kostis (and hired a young Sargent as an assistant). Miller also worked with architects George Fazio and his nephew, the future star Tom Fazio, in building Pinehurst’s No. 6 course.
About the same time, Art Williams had started an insurance and investments company, A.O. Williams Co., which became a division of CitiGroup. Miller joined as a partner around 1981, and used his golf knowledge to start HMS (Haslam, Miller, Simmons) Golf Management, which ran golf courses around Raleigh. Miller, who moved to Columbia around 1985, was involved in building Jones Creek, a top golf course in Augusta, and Aiken’s Cedar Creek among others.
In 2000, Miller — by then living at Lake Murray — began looking for a golf course to buy and operate. One day, a friend called and asked, “Why don’t you buy the University Club (now Cobblestone Park Country Club, near Blythewood)?” to which Miller replied, “I didn’t know it was for sale.”
“That was the perfect venue for me, living at the lake, and we got off to a rip-roaring start,” Miller said. By 2005, the golf course and club were operating at a profit, and “I thought I’d ride off into the sunset there.” But golf course developer Bobby Ginn, a Hampton native, kept offering more and more money for the club, until “finally it was impossible to say no,” Miller said.
Talk about timing: the renamed golf club and property development faltered and later went into receivership, before being bought nearly a decade later by development company D.R. Horton. George Bryan III, father of future PGA Tour winner Wesley Bryan and a Miller friend, confidant and one-time employee, laughs remembering Miller’s sale.
“He bought the University Club, in part, because I told him no one could make money in golf in this town,” said Bryan, who had met Miller while giving him a golf lesson at Timberlake Country Club in Chapin. “Lou took that as a challenge.
“He laughed at me when he sold it and showed me the check. He said, ‘What do you think now, Bryan?’ He proved me dead wrong.”
The past 10 years, Miller has owned Old Edwards Golf Club in Highlands, N.C., where he and business partners bought a historic property and added the golf course as an amenity. Business is good, Miller said.
In semi-retirement, he splits his time between Bluffton and Highlands. “It’s 318 miles from the club to home,” Miller said. Of course, each April, his sights are aimed farther west.
Arnie, Jack and Tom
Miller in 60 years going to the Masters has collected a treasure trove of souvenirs — his past tournament badges make up a large framed display, and he has photos of golf’s biggest names over the decades — but the best “souvenirs” are his memories. Especially fond are his recollections of Palmer’s green jacket-winning performances.
“He won again in 1960, and in 1961 (when Gary Player took the Masters) my Lincolnton High football team had won the previous state title,” Miller said. “We were all standing at the big scoreboard in our letter jackets; it was 95 degrees, but we were proud of those jackets.”
Palmer won his final two Masters in 1962 and 1964. A couple of years later, in his first year of coaching, Miller sent in an application for Masters tickets — three, at each; “I had no money, so that was all I could afford,” he said — and got a spot on the annual list.
“Two weeks later, there was a newspaper headline, ‘Masters sells out for the first time,’” he said, and chuckled. “I guess the list has been closed since.”
Miller recalls Palmer’s final victory, by six shots, as “a coronation.” Later, he became a fan of Tom Watson, who won twice at Augusta. But he wasn’t a Jack Nicklaus fan at first (many Palmer fans resented the Golden Bear usurping The King’s spot), but Nicklaus’ five Masters’ wins from 1963-75 won over Miller, too.
Nicklaus’ stunning sixth win in 1986 was one Miller didn’t see in person. Some years, especially after his business career took off, he might only get to Augusta National for one or two early rounds — but always Monday for the first day — and so in ’86 he listened on radio that Sunday. “But I could still see all his shots in my mind,” Miller said.
Tiger Woods in 1997, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia last year — good memories, all. But this year, Miller already has his new favorite: the debut of Wesley Bryan, George III’s younger son and the winner of last year’s RBC Heritage, the first South Carolina player to capture the state’s lone annual PGA Tour event.
“George and I became friends when the boys were maybe 6 and 4,” Miller said. “I’ve seen them come up through golf, played golf with them. And (daughter) Mary Chandler (Bryan) might be the best of the family.”
Miller will be along this week when Wesley competes, but he knows the Bryan family has already had an impact on Augusta National. He recalls a trip there by the boys as guests of then-chairman Hootie Johnson (George Bryan III was the late Johnson’s go-to golf instructor), at a time when Augusta National was considering lengthening the fabled course because of equipment improvement.
Writers at the first Masters news conference after the course was stretched out asked Johnson if the move was to “Tiger-proof” Augusta National. No, he said, it was because he’d watched a high school golfer reach several longer holes with short irons.
“It was G4 (George Bryan IV, Wesley’s brother),” Miller said. “They all had lunch in the Butler Cabin that day, and then G4 hit an 8-iron into the (par-5) 15th. The decision was made right then to lengthen the course.”
George III says Miller is “like a special uncle or grandfather” to his sons and daughter, and “came along at exactly the right time in their lives.” But the elder Bryan also has experienced his friend’s generosity.
In 1998-99, Bryan says, his hopes of a golf program for youngsters in local recreation centers were faltering. “Lou stepped in the gap, revived the program,” said Bryan, who now has his own golf academy near Chapin. “He gave me new enthusiasm to make it work.
“I was going to abandon the project. I said, ‘Help me, or it’s going to fold.’ The academy evolved from that, and honestly, without him, maybe Wesley doesn’t have the career he has.”
In 60 years attending the Masters, Miller says he never kept track of his streak, because each year was a new awakening, a new spring, good times and good friends together to celebrate. Every year, it still is.
“The great thing about Augusta is what they don’t change,” he said. “It’s about the golf. It’s about hospitality, it’s about ambience, it’s about beauty; it’s about sportsmanship, about being a gentleman, players taking off their hats when they enter the press center.
“It’s about reuniting, and the rites of spring. It’s about a golf course that’s stood the test of time.” He laughed. “It’s about a ham-and-cheese sandwich on rye for .75. I tell my guests, ‘I’ll buy lunch if you get dinner.’ After they see the check, they get it.
"It’s fresh-mown grass, clean air, and the excitement of the fans,” Miller said. ”It’s the thrill of being there for the first time. It’s a feeling and a happening.”
It’s one that never goes away for Miller. Sixty years on, there’s another awaiting his 8 a.m. Monday arrival.
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