Al Saracevic | on August 28, 2018
Johnny Miller was in a good place when last year’s Safeway Open came to an end.
The Hall of Famer had helped put on yet another successful PGA Tour event, with Brendan Steele winning against a competitive field for the second year in a row. Miller had every reason to be proud.
Then the unthinkable happened.
“It was something I’ll never forget. The fact that we had a good tournament, with a good finish … I was back at my condo relaxing. Then I smelled that smoke,” Miller told The Chronicleafter Tuesday’s media event for this year’s tournament. “For some reason, I can smell smoke better than most people. I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is that smoke?’ And I look out and the whole mountain to the north is glowing orange. I’m thinking, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
It was no joke. The flames from Napa’s Atlas Peak swooped down and badly damaged parts of the famed Silverado Country Club, burning down grandstands that had been full of fans just hours before. From that respect, things could’ve been much worse. But for Miller, his family and thousands of other Napa residents, this was a full-blown nightmare.
“The wind was blowing from that direction, from the north, and it was heading right for us. I was thinking, ‘We need to get out of there.’ This is not good,” Miller said. “When I moved in 1981 to Utah, by (fellow Hall of Famer) Billy Casper’s house, that day that same wind was blowing and a fire was lapping up against those same houses on the north side. It was a bad dream coming around a second time.”
Miller was able to evacuate himself and others to safety that horrible night. But his daughter lost her condo and all her possessions in the Atlas Fire. Hundreds more lost their homes, as well.
One year later, Miller and his partners in the annual Safeway Open gathered at Silverado to promote this year’s tournament, which will be played Oct. 4-7. The course looks immaculate. The projected field of players is particularly strong. One would think that nothing ever happened here. But Miller and his neighbors know better.
“The cleanup process was just terrible,” said Miller, still looking fit at 71. “It took so long. It’s been really hard on me to be honest. I love to fix things and make things better and make them right again. It’s just a slow process. I feel bad for the people who lost all their belongings, like my daughter. I don’t know. It was just really hard.”
The tournament plans to help in that regard, donating all of this year’s ticket-sale proceeds to fire relief charities.
“All the proceeds ... will go to the fire victims in Napa Valley,” Miller said. “To me, that’s just amazing. ... There’s still a big need on people trying to get back on their feet.”
Ticket sales should be helped by the presence of players such as Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples, both of whom have committed to playing this year. Crowd favorite Brandt Snedeker also will be on hand, and more are expected to commit in the next few weeks. The tournament has granted a sponsor’s exemption for former A’s pitcher Mark Mulder, who has become an accomplished golfer in his retirement.
The Safeway event is the first of the season, as the golf calendar turns.
“My enjoyment and appreciation for the golf course is a big reason I come back to play every year,” said Mickelson, via conference call. “It’s a fun golf course. The greens are a big part of that. … I’m very comfortable on poa annua greens. I grew up on them.”
The surroundings don’t hurt the draw, either.
“I love coming there when there’s not a tournament, because I can have a little bit of wine,” Mickelson said. “Everything about Napa is the best. It’s the best wine, the best food, the best weather. It’s the beauty. Everything is just spectacular.”
Snedeker may have been most honest about the situation when he said: “Napa’s such a special place. Every wife and girlfriend loves going there.”
This year’s event, which is the tour’s cheapest for spectators at $30 per ticket, also will feature nightly free concerts after the golf concludes, featuring the likes of Sammy Hagar, Young the Giant and Billy Idol.
There you have it: Golf, wine, charity and Sammy Hagar. It’s all lining up in Napa on the first week of October.
“I’m looking forward to a great tournament,” Miller said. “It’s nice to have Phil back. It’s nice to have Brandt Snedeker back. ... It’s going to be a wonderful week of golf.”
Here’s hoping Johnny smells only cigar smoke that weekend.
Al Saracevic is sports editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @alsaracevic