The Olympics are great for watching sports you might not watch outside of the Games. But when it comes to Olympic golf, there’s a new wrinkle: It's likely to be a version of the sport nobody has seen.
“I don’t think anybody knows what to expect,” says NBC’s analyst David Feherty. Except, he suggests in an interview, the winner might arguably still be alive a century from now. “A hundred years from now, the winner will be on a list with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens. Olympic gold, in some ways, it makes you immortal.”
It seems certain that five-ringed Rio golf will be better than the last Olympic golf, when men from just two countries – the U.S. and Canada – and no women competed in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. In the men’s tournament in Rio, a 60-player field – about half the size of a regular PGA Tour event – will use the familiar stroke-play format over the usual four days and 72 holes. Players won’t have to worry about missing the cut – there won’t be one – or about embarrassing their sponsors since, this being the Games, they can’t have the usual corporate logos on their clothes.
But novice or casual golf viewers might understandably be confused about who's playing since, arguably, much of the pre-Games golf publicity revolved around golf stars who won’t be in Rio. Rory McIlroy, on Feherty’s idiosyncratic Feherty show on NBC’s Golf Channel, said last spring he was going to “relish” playing in the Olympics and would “give it my all.” But after bowing out of play in part because of concerns about the Zika virus, he said in July he’d tune in to watch Olympic events “that matter” – but not necessarily golf – and questioned whether golf is ready for Olympic drug-testing standards, saying “if golf is in the Olympics and wants to be seen as a mainstream sport, it has to get in line with the other sports that test more rigorously.”
On McIlroy, Feherty, a fellow native of Northern Ireland, is pretty relaxed: “Rory just got worn out by the questioning and he just kind of snapped. It was out of character. He’s a good kid,” he says.
Feherty, who’ll be positioned in an on-course tower for the exhaustive Rio golf coverage on NBC’s Golf Channel, suggests the correct attitude for Olympic golf is to just go with the flow. On golf and Olympic drug testing, he’s grateful: “I’m just glad they don’t drug test the announcers.”
Don’t laugh. OK, go ahead and laugh. But here’s an important tip for viewers who don’t normally watch golf but catch it while sampling sports at the Games: Feherty isn’t exactly your typical sportscaster.
Consider that Feherty, who emigrated from Northern Ireland to the U.S. in 1993, wrote a revealingly entitled 2003 book called Somewhere in Ireland, A Village Is Missing An Idiot, and became an American citizen in 2010. His Feherty Golf Channel show, like his on-course commentary, can include just about everything but clichés despite his being a bonafide touring pro who retired in 1997 with more than $3 million in career earnings.
He has also has visited U.S. troops in the Middle East and become heavily involved in helping wounded veterans, which led to his receiving in 2013 the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award, one of the highest honors the military can bestow on a civilian.
And, in his on-air and public comments, Feherty is unique. As a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in a decade and someone who has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder that he treats with various antidepressants, he’s publicly candid, and refreshingly disarming, about the challenges he’s faced. Feherty has been hit by vehicles three times while bicycling, getting run over twice. The incidents left him too injured to play golf, although he says he recently played for the first time in a decade and “that was a mistake.”
NBC’s Olympic coverage, which includes analyst Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo, a Golf Channel analyst who is also CBS’ lead broadcast golf announcer, is an all-star TV crew. But Feherty’s off-kilter outlook, combined with the never-seen-on-TV Olympic golf, seems to guarantee on-air novelty.
Not that Feherty is the only reason to watch. As golfers Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler pitch and putt for the red, white and blue, NBC/Golf Channel analyst David Duval says representing your country means “the nerves are going to continue for four days. … Everyone is going to be nervous the whole time.”
NBC/Golf Channel analyst Peter Jacobsen says the new Rio Olympic course, built for the Games, “will go down as one of the great courses around the world,” and will certainly get attention if alligators, already spotted around the course, somehow get by the alligator “tenders” that Olympic organizers will provide to help prevent any disruptions in play.
And NBC/Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo takes a long view about Rio’s potential impact on the sport: “Seven years ago, I was one of the naysayers for golf in the Olympics. But traditional means of spreading the game of golf around the world haven’t worked. … Maybe this is the vehicle that will spread it around.”
For Feherty, who last year left CBS to join NBC full time, Olympic golf might also represent a chance to spread himself around on-air. In Rio, he says, “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing outside of golf,” although he’ll definitely talk to NBC primetime Olympic host Bob Costas for a Golf Channel show debuting Aug. 23. And if he does get some Rio roles outside golf, he says, it’s possible they will prove a springboard to new on-air roles at NBC going forward: “I’m open to suggestions. Let’s see what happens at the Olympics.”