IGA Hall of Famer Ivan Miller poses with some of his memorabilia accumulated over a long and distinguished golf career. An accomplished artist and retired art teacher, one of his favorite works is a drawing of his son Ivan, displayed in the background.
Now on Life’s Back Nine, Miller Reflects on His Hall of Fame Career
Over the course of a spectacular career competing in hundreds of golf tournaments, Eldora’s Ivan Miller faced his share of tough breaks and bad lies. But nothing the golf course tossed at him would compare to what the game of life sent his way more than six years ago.
In 2016, Miller was diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 melanoma cancer where a tumor settled in against his lower spine. He underwent intensive radiation and 32 Keytruda treatments, an immune system therapy considered at the time as experimental. The treatment worked, and the cancer went into remission, where it has remained. An extensive rehabilitation followed that included a year in a nursing home and learning to walk again.
“I’m very much enjoying my mulligan on life,” Miller told Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene during an interview held recently at the Pine Lake Country Club in Eldora, where he holds the course record with a 59.
Miller, 73, still possesses the competitive fire that propelled him to golf titles in more than 120 tournaments over a six-decade career. He can only play nine holes at a time, but retains a passion for the game he first discovered as a youth growing up in Grundy Center.
“Golf has been such an incredible and impactful part of my life,” said Miller. “I’ve met so many wonderful people and developed so many lasting relationships through this game.”
That list includes the late Iowa State basketball coach Johnny Orr, who would call upon Miller to participate in numerous charitable outings, the iconic George Turner, whom he competed with and against, Iowa golf legends Bob Gitchell, (Edmund) “Bud” McCardell and John Liechty, Des Moines Register sportswriter Buck Turnbull, Iowa Golf Association executive director Jim Rasley and a hometown buddy, Harry Athas, among many others.
Former Iowa Amateur champion Jim Carney dubbed Miller the “Minnow King” for his remarkable record of capturing title after title during the 1970’s and 1980’s across central and eastern Iowa. Miller estimates he captured some 120 tournaments during that span and in the now bygone era of small town, one-day, 27-hole tournaments. In places such as Mason City, Strawberry Point, Waverly, Jewell, Hampton, Ames, Parkersburg, Clarion, Eagle Grove, and the like, Miller fashioned a reputation as a tough competitor and champion.
When Ivan Miller was in town, the rest of the field was likely playing for second place. It also provided some interesting prizes, in addition to the customary clubhouse gift certificates.
He’s won chainsaws, steaks, Iowa chops, furniture, seed corn caps and jackets, watches, and cases of motor oil. But the grand prize at Eagle Grove’s “Hog Wild” Open may be the most distinctive. Miller arrived at the first tee and, much to his surprise, near the teeing area, were two hogs in a pen bedded down with straw, the ultimate prize for the champion. Miller won, of course, and had the hogs butchered.
In addition to his razor-sharp golf game, Miller also attracted attention by pulling up to tournaments with his Chevy van, modified to fit his three-wheeled golf cart. After capturing the titles, onlookers would watch as he motored the cart into the back of the van. Off he went to the next tournament, and during a 15-year stretch, he estimated playing two to three tournaments per week, and perhaps 600 events in total. In addition to all the tournament titles, Miller has other golf accolades that include two 59’s, one 60 and 12 holes-in-one.
Ivan Miller poses in front of the ninth green at Pine Lake County Club in Eldora, where he holds the course record with a 59 and has played thousands of rounds over the years.
Miller’s game was also well suited for the big stage. He captured three state-wide major titles, including The Iowa Masters and Northwest Amateur in 1980 and the Fort Dodge Amateur in 1982. He would tally 22 top-10 finishes in those three major events during his career. Miller was named the Iowa Golf Association’s Player of the Year in 1978 and 1980. He was inducted into the IGA’s Hall of Fame in 2018.
The experiences, stories, and folklore accumulated over the years are plentiful. He recalled being paired with the colorful and controversial Floren DiPaglia during the Fort Dodge Amateur.
“Floren had a bodyguard with him who doubled as his caddie,” Miller said. “We were playing a hole near the highway when a car backfired. I looked across the fairway, and Floren was down on the deck, with his caddie on top of him. Later in the round, during a backup in play, he pulled out a dozen new Titleists and a wad of $100 bills and was betting his caddie that he could hit the water tower adjacent to the course.”
In the mid-1980’s, Miller was competing in the Clinton River Boat Days event when he encountered a “young phenom” on the practice green and was challenged to a putting contest for dimes. Miller, known for his fabulous short game, held his own against the youngster before the tide turned. The collegiate golfer then started using the end of his putter and continued to collect dimes from Miller. Some 17 years later, that young kid would go on to win the British Open Championship at Troon, that being Todd Hamilton.
His Iowa Golf Hall of Fame career was launched in the late 1950’s when neighbors gave him a set of wooden-shafted clubs. He set up “courses” around his house and in the backyard using plastic golf balls and even scooped snow during the winter to facilitate chipping sessions.
Miller was a four-year letterwinner at Grundy Center High School and played one year at Marshalltown Community College, where he qualified for the National Junior College championships. He played three seasons at Peru State College in Nebraska, won the Nebraska College Golf Championship (all levels) and played in the NAIA National Championship.
Miller taught one year at Coon Rapids, where he met his late wife, Ann. The couple moved to Eldora in 1971, where he taught art at Eldora-New Providence High School and coached golf for 43 years. Among his many golf pupils was Christi (Athas) Imsland, a three-time Iowa High School state champion.
Although age and health issues have taken some toll on his playing ability, Miller still plays men’s league and casual matches with friends at Pine Lake Country Club. He’s at peace, enjoying a second chance at life and reflects with pride on an extraordinary golf career and the many lessons learned on the links.
“I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true,” he said. “Hard work pays off. There’s great satisfaction in improving and always learning because we all started from the same place trying to figure this game out.”
“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene
A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.
Click the links below to read previous Up and Down features
– IGA Rules Official Sean Flanders
– R&A, USGA Champion Gene Elliott
– Nervig Reflects on Decades of Service to The Iowa Masters
– Arseneault Finds Fulfillment in Life’s Next Chapter After Competitive Golf