NBC's Mike Tirico on Olympic Golf Exodus: "We Need Some Patience"

Mike Tirico H 2016
Ilya S. Savenok /Getty Images

The analyst, who makes his debut on the network with Thursday's British Open, notes that Olympic tennis suffered the same low expectations when it returned to the Games in 1988.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has been cited as the cause for many athletes who have decided to pass up the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And many of them are the world’s top golfers, a sport that is making a return to the Olympics after 112 years.

Already the player defections include top-ranked Jason Day of Australia; Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who is ranked No 4; and No. 8-ranked Adam Scott, also of Australia. American Jordan Spieth (No. 3) has said he is “uncertain” about participating in Rio. But analyst Mike Tirico, who recently joined NBC Sports after 25 years at ESPN, is optimistic that the Rio Olympics will nonetheless be an important milestone for the sport. 

"I think we need some patience here,” Tirico tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When you win an Olympic gold medal, it crosses you into a different stratosphere in sports. For the golfers, it’s just a matter of getting used to it. Maybe in 2020 it will have a different resonance for the athletes. I think it’s going to be a different marker in terms of the endorsements but also their respect in the game.”

Tirico will make his debut on NBC Sports with the British Open, which begins Thursday from Royal Troon in Scotland. He’ll serve as studio host and appear on both NBC and Golf Channel. He’ll also host NBC’s daytime coverage of the Rio Olympics, which kicks off Aug. 3, two days before the Opening Ceremonies, with women’s soccer. Veteran golf host David Feherty will play a major role in NBCUniversal's coverage of Olympic golf on both NBC and Golf Channel (which plans more than 100 hours of Olympic coverage).

The top 15 male and female golfers are eligible to participate in the Olympics, with Monday being the cutoff to qualify. Already a long list of male golfers in the sport have demurred, including South Africans Branden Grace (No. 11), Louis Oosthuizen (No. 14) and Charl Schwartzel (No. 23); Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (No. 17); Australia’s Marc Leishman (No. 37); and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (No. 73). Among the women, only South African Lee-Anne Pace has pulled out so far.

Golfers, who spend hours outside on verdant courses, are more at risk of mosquito bites than many other athletes. But while Zika has been the stated cause for many, the scheduling of the Olympics between the Open Championship and the PGA make it a difficult for many athletes. And the Olympics just don’t carry the same cachet as the various majors. Taken with the concerns about security in Rio, it’s not surprising that many golfers have pulled out.

But Tirico notes that Olympics tennis endured similarly low expectations when that sport returned to the Games in 1988. Tennis was “a little bit slower to gather steam, especially on the men’s side,” he said. "But now, you don’t hear of tennis players not going to the Olympics. The medals that they have won at the Olympics are right up there with their career accomplishments.”

Indeed, the 2012 Olympic gold medal match between Roger Federer, who had just won Wimbledon the month prior, and Scotland’s Andy Murray, who defeated Federer to take Olympic Gold, was among the highlights of the London Games.

"There’s no bigger global sports platform than the Olympics. It’s a huge moment and opportunity for [golf],” added Tirico. "The sport absolutely is in need of continued growth. I think it’s overall a great proposition for the sport."