Mike Tirico returns to his role as host Sunday on NBC when live golf is shown on television for the first time in more than two months, and he can’t wait.
“Someone gets over a ball and we don’t know the outcome,” Tirico said Friday.
This is hardly a return to normal.
The charity Skins game — Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff — will be at Seminole Golf Club, the fabled Donald Ross design in south Florida that has never been seen on television.
Tirico will be in the corner of his office in Michigan, some 1,300 miles away.
The soft return of golf includes testing for COVID-19, thermal readings, social distancing and limited access. That goes for the television production crew.
Rich Lerner from Golf Channel is doing play by play, with NBC analysts Paul Azinger and Gary Koch. All three will be at PGA Tour Entertainment offices in St. Augustine, Florida, about 200 miles up I-95.
Steve Sands and Jerry Foltz will be the only reporters on the grounds. Throw in the players (no caddies), television production crew, rules officials, and no more than about 50 people are expected at Seminole.
“It will be different not being in the same part of the country,” Tirico said. “It won’t be drastically different because it’s not as though I’d be sitting in a tower looking down on 18 green. And we do end up calling a lot of golf off a monitor. But it’s the stuff like access, riding around the golf course, picturing shots, seeing landing areas, talking to players and caddies and setup people. That’s a significant part to me.”
It’s all part of the adjustment when more sports return, assuming they do.
What should help is the nature of the event, called “TaylorMade Driving Relief.” The players are donating their time, and UnitedHealth Group has pledged $3 million stakes that will go to the American Nurses Foundation and the CDC Foundation, depending on which team wins more skins.
Tirico has experience from his years at ABC when it televised the original Skins Game on Thanksgiving weekend in the California desert, back when the four players included the likes of Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara, and occasionally Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
“The best Skins games have the players talking,” Tirico said. “If the players are yapping, you can let them go.”
It helps having McIlroy, who along with being the No. 1 player in the world has developed into one of the sport’s biggest personalities. Tirico believes this could be a chance for Johnson to convey some of his insight, grossly underrated because he typically is only heard in post-round interviews in which he often shares that he was hitting the ball well.
And it’s a chance for Wolff to introduce himself to a wider audience. A dynamic 21-year-old Californian, Wolff was barely a month removed from his sophomore year at Oklahoma State when he won the 3M Open in Minnesota.
“You could get a lot of people become Matt Wolff fans if he has the game he showed in Minnesota,” Tirico said.
Then again, no one will have competed for nine weeks. Johnson went nearly two months without playing. McIlroy played Seminole recently with his father (a member) and club president Jimmy Dunne, and hit one putt off the green.
But this goes beyond the quality.
“I think there will be a mulligan for the guys if they don’t play well because they all signed up for this for the right reasons, because it is going for COVID relief,” Tirico said. “I don’t think anybody loses, which is a nice way to get back to sports.”
Tirico had planned on this being the busiest summer of his career. The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, Indy 500, various Olympic trials, the British Open, the Olympics.
Instead, he has been hosting “Lunch Talk Live” from his home office. His fix on sports has been mainly like everyone else, watching reruns of great moments in sports. What stood out to Tirico was not the outcome (which he already knew) but the environment.
“You see a crowd shot and wonder when you’re going to see that again,” he said. “Is it going to be a year? Those things have me befuddled as to any guess when sports normalcy comes.”