MG Sits Down with ABC Television Golf Host Mike Tirico
By Terry Moore
35-year-old Mike Tirico is one of the young, bright and most versatile stars in the sports television constellation. As ABC-TV Sports golf host, Tirico will be preside at the 18th hole tower booth at more than 25 events in 2002 including the Ford Senior Players Championship, the British Open, and the PGA Tour Championship. A graduate of Syracuse University where he was the first recipient of the Bob Costas Scholarship as an exceptional broadcast journalism student, Tirico worked at WTVH-TV (Syracuse) from 1987 to 1991. Joining ESPN in 1991, Tirico first worked on SportsCenter. In addition to those duties, he has held such diverse assignments as NFL Prime Monday, College Football Scoreboard, The NFL on ESPN Radio, and reported from the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl, and NCAA Final Four and the NFL Draft. On top of his golf host role, Tirico will serve as ABC's host of its NBA telecasts next year and handle college basketball assignments on ESPN.
A native of Queens, NY, Tirico now resides with his wife and son in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he is a member of Barton Hills Country Club. Earlier this year, he spoke at length with Michigan Golfer's Terry Moore. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
MG: At the Match Play Championship earlier this year, you were on the air on Saturday from mid-morning until 7 pm. Talk about the demands of a marathon day like that.
MT: We have four to five days like that during the year. Working at the U.S. Open for ESPN there are days like that. Thursday and Friday at the British Open are also like that, where your day starts in the morning and goes all the way through the night. Often times on either ESPN or ABC there is a highlight show for British Open, for example, we're doing SportsCenter, the action coverage, and the highlight show. Yes, they become long days. Those are challenging days because you always have to remember that, like a golfer, your best work must come at the end and the work you are most remembered for usually comes at the end. Over time, I have learned that this is the way of our business, and at the end of the day I'm still sitting down watching TV and talking about it.
MG: Listening to you on the golf telecasts, it's apparent that another thing you do well is preparation and research. Explain how you stay current with the golf news and player background.
MT: We're lucky we have someone like Robinson Holloway who works with us on golf research and background. But you can't go into a telecast and expect to be briefed on something and then be very believable in your presentation when you get on the air. It's much like with CEOs for a presentation. They can go in and be briefed for it, but the people in the audience and those who truly know the subject are going to sit there and discern whether or not they really know this stuff or they are just brushing up on the surface of understanding. It becomes very difficult for me to stay current when I have multiple sports going on, almost year-around, to try to stay abreast of college basketball, college football, pro football and golf.
MG: So how do you stay abreast of the golf beat?
MT: First, I will watch as many of the golf telecasts as I can during the week when not working. The Golf Channel is a great resource to watch during the week. I will also videotape tournaments and sneak in an opportunity to fast forward through a tournament to watch it if I happen to be working another event. By far the best preparation is on the practice range talking with the players on Wednesday before or after they play a practice round.
MG: On that note, how agreeable and approachable are the Tour players?
MT: Tour players are the easiest athletes of all the sports to deal with in terms of information, conversation, and interviews. I think this is partially due to the fact that they are business representatives of themselves. They represent companies on their golf bag, on their sleeve, on their hat and so they understand the value of communication and interaction. More importantly, they understand the individual accountability of golf sets them apart from team sports and makes them more responsive. In team sports, there are a myriad of excuses a player can hide behind- from coaches' decisions, injuries, as well as other teammates to deflect the attention of an interview. In golf, it is just you and your score.
MG: What's your take on Colin Montgomerie and how he is viewed by the public and the media?
MT: What's happened to Monty is disappointing because when one does interview him he's exceptional. He is so quotable, funny, intelligent, and charming in many ways. But it's so hard, it seems, for him to understand that this is part of what he signs up for. When you enter tournaments and make millions of dollars, part of what you signed up for is dealing with the press. The savvy players understand that the media is the conduit between them and golf fans. At the end of the day, those fans are the people who support their tournaments, support the advertisers who give TV the money to put it on the air, support the golf companies and other sponsors. If it wasn't for these fans, the players wouldn't be out there making money. Most Tour players understand that equation and for the few who don't, like Monty, it is a shame because when they do decide to play by everybody else's rules, they are great interviews.
MG: Tell us about your golf background growing up and now today.
MT: My uncle would take me out when I was a kid to play on a public course in Queens. We would get out a couple of times. I wouldn't say I was a golfer. I played after college, a little bit more but not very well. It wasn't until I started working at ESPN that I really started to play more golf. Since I worked a schedule where I didn't get into the office until 6:00 p.m., it allowed me to play more. Then I joined a couple of different golf clubs in Connecticut. So by the time I got the ABC job in '97, I really had the golf bug. I didn't play at a high level. I have improved a lot in the last five years, even though I play less. I think it is the biggest irony to me of getting this job. I am around golf much more and I play less than ever.
MG: Have you taken any lessons or golf instruction?
MT: Starting out I just went out, played with the guys and tried to figure it out. Maybe I have taken four golf lessons in my life. But a series of lessons with a pro would do me a world of good.
MG: What about Curtis Strange or Judy Rankin, do they work with you?
MT: Sure, at work all you have to do is ask and they will show you something. For me, Judy Rankin is by far the best guide and best eye. She has a unique way of saying a lot with very few words. She can just say it in the nicest, most pleasant way: "If you tried this...or have you thought about trying this?" Anytime I play golf with Judy it has been a big help to my game.
MG: Inasmuch as all golf hosts are being evaluated by various viewer or reader polls, it's only fair to ask you how you evaluate golf viewers. How fair and discerning are they?
MT: I think I have more respect for the golf viewer than any other sport viewer because they are the most knowledgeable. They are the toughest critics because they are so demanding in terms of performance which is the nature of the sport. So many are members at a club and when you are a member at a club or even someone who plays golf on a regular basis, the traditions of the sport have almost given you the right to demand certain things. You expect good service, good greens, in short, you just expect things. The golf viewer comes to a telecast with certain expectations and demands and that is great because it forces you to raise your level of performance. But you never make any viewer in any sport completely satisfied anyway.
MG: It almost seems as if golf viewers challenge someone in your position to prove to them that you not only have knowledge of the game but that you're really into the game. Didn't this aspect of the golf audience prove to be Brent Musburger's undoing as a host?
MT: Yes, the golf viewers want you to prove to them that you love the game as much as they do. Maybe that is unfair demand because most viewers don't ask you to be that credible in football or when you do the Big East Basketball Tournament. The amazing thing about the TV golf audience is that people want to know if you are a "golf guy." Well, nobody ever asks you that question in football or in basketball. It's a unique part of the sport and I don't know what defines a "golf guy." I think Jim Nantz (CBS-TV golf anchor) has the label of a golf guy. Well, Jim did play college golf at Houston and was a teammate of Freddie Couples. Dan Hicks (NBC-TV golf anchor) did not play college golf nor did I. But the other people who have done these anchor jobs for the most part have not been competitive golfers. I think if you put somebody who is a former competitive golfer in the host role, they would not necessarily be a good host. I can answer some of the questions that I will put to Curtis Strange or to Ian Baker-Finch on the air. But the reason I don't is because the viewers at home want to hear from a guy who is a better golfer than them. In golf, you always want to glean information from somebody better than you.
MG: You possess a terrific fluency and you're never at a loss for words on the air. That's a prerequisite for an anchor; but how do you guard against over-talking and over-explaining during a golf telecast?
MT: It's a discipline, a learned technique. The one thing I have learned over time is that golfers just want to see the action. Tell them what they don't know, what they don't have access to in terms of talking to a player, what he has done today, shots, etc., and really stay out of the way and let them watch it. It's funny. I'll have some people tell me that I really "let a golf show breathe" and I appreciate that. But I'll have other people tell me, "You talk way too much." So I know I'm never going to please everyone.
MG: Earlier this year, the influential USA TODAY sports television columnist Rudy Martzke called you "the most improved announcer." Do you read his Monday morning column and how valid do you find T.V. sports criticism?
MT: I think we all read his columns. The people who say they don't read Rudy's column or other media columns, I think they're lying to be very frank. Who doesn't feel better when somebody says they did a good job? Anybody that doesn't is fooling himself. And when somebody says you don't do a good job, I think people like to know why and really critically analyze it. Then you ask yourself does the criticism come from somebody who knows what they're talking about? Is the person accurate, informed, do they understand TV? Also, I think you read the media columns because they become, for lack of a better term, the gossip column for our business. You find out who is moving where and who is going different places. Criticism of golf telecasts is very easy because some people want to see all golf shots, some people want to see features. What is right for the golf viewers at home? Do they want to see stories intermixed with live action? I don't think there are definitive answers. You just have to use your best judgment.
MG: Would you share some background about your family and upbringing?
MT: I grew up in a family who loved sports. I was raised by my mom, a single divorced parent. So she was my mom and my dad and the MVP of the house. I always joked she was the mom who had the best arm on the block. She would throw a baseball with me, do homework with me, take me to a ballgame, whatever I wanted to do she would do. I was the only child and grew up in Queen's, NY. At the same time, all of my mom's brothers and sisters loved sports. My grandfather is a big sports fan, so I grew up in a house where sports were a big deal. I was christened at half-time of the Super Bowl, so there might be some message right there. You can draw from it what you wish. I went to Syracuse University because Bob Costas, Marv Albert, Marty Goodman were great sportscasters who were from the NY area and went to college there. Once I found that out about them, I really knew in high school that I wanted to be in journalism either as a writer or sportscaster. I wrote for our high school newspaper, becoming the sports editor and later the overall editor.
MG: And what about at Syracuse?
MT: At Syracuse, I realized I wanted to be in electronic media and broadcast journalism. I loved it and got involved in the college radio station. It was very competitive as there were a lot of people who knew what they wanted to do as a career. The wonderful thing is that maybe 15 of us who were at Syracuse working at the radio station are still in the business today. In fact, we're all going to have a reunion in Las Vegas this summer. It was an exciting time and later I was lucky enough to get involved in local TV and get a job in Syracuse.
MG: Talk about that first job.
MT: I was actually 20 years old when I got my first job on the air as a sportscaster at the CBS affiliate doing weekend sports. Still in college and with a full year left, I actually had a decision to make: Did I leave school and just work full-time at the station or did I try to do both and get my degree? I did the latter and graduated on time. One of the proudest professional days of my life for me occurred on my college graduation day in May 1988. I went right from graduation to a celebration brunch with my family. Afterwards, my family traveled back to New York while I went home, showered, dressed and then went right to work at the station. I did the 6 and 11 sportscast that night in Syracuse. I worked there for three years.
MG: And how did you get your break into ESPN?
MT: First, I sent a tape. In our business, you very often send a tape of your work and a resume to potential employers. So I sent a tape to ESPN in 1990 and they said, "Well, we think you're pretty good but a little young. Why don't you send us something in a year?" I waited ten months, got impatient and sent another tape to them. They brought me in for an interview and I got hired a month-and-a-half later.
MG: What was your first ESPN assignment and how did it all lead to your present position?
MT: My first job at ESPN was doing SportsCenter at 2:30 a.m. (EST) I started in July, 1991 and lived in Connecticut for eight years. I did the overnight show for a long time. I was working with Chris Myers and we were on the air when those late night shows started replaying in the morning in 1992. I did that for about three years. Then I branched out and started doing other work at ESPN (college football, college basketball, NFL-related) and then had a couple opportunities to do golf. I went to my boss at that time around 1995 and told him if anything came up relating to golf I would love to get the opportunity to work on it. What happened was Jim Kelly, who was the voice of the Senior Tour on ESPN for a long time, was also doing the America's Cup and had a conflict. So I did two tournaments, one in Charlotte and one in New Jersey (two Senior PGA Tour events) and that was my first little sampling of broadcasting golf. Then two years later the ABC-TV golf spot came open. Well, the person who hired me at ESPN and who put me in the position to do golf sitting in for Kelly was now in charge at ABC and he said, "Let's give Mike a shot." So that's how it all got started for me as a golf anchor in January 1997.
MG: Tell us about your first tournament for ABC-TV.
MT: My first tournament as the golf anchor was the 1997 Mercedes Championship at La Costa. The first part of the week went fine and then came my first Sunday stint. Well, this turned out to be the day where due to the final round washout the champion was going to be decided in a two-man playoff between Tiger Woods and Tom Lehman. But before that we had three hours to fill. On the first hole of the playoff, a par-three, Lehman gets up and hits into the water. Tiger gets up and stiffs it close to the cup. Lehman hits his third shot, chips up and then Tiger putts out his birdie in to win. That was it: A three-hour show with five live golf shots that came within a ten minute stretch. Even to this day, there is no harder show to do than a three hour fill with no live golf. So that was my baptism of fire.
MG: How do you balance out the duties of a courteous host in a sports entertainment setting and a broadcast journalist in a sports news role?
MT: The line between broadcast journalist and host has really expanded and has been pushed apart in the last ten years. NBC and specifically Dick Ebersol have created great relationships with the Olympics, the NBA, and the PGA Tour, and they have become the model. Networks now look at their broadcast rights as a partnership as opposed to a contract. We all work together in a variety of things and it is mutually beneficial. It has put the host in a little bit tougher role because you have to make sure when you state an opinion, you do it respectfully, it's journalistically accurate, and at the same time know that there could be repercussions from the organization. You have to make sure that your bosses know where you are going to go, that you have checked it out and done your homework. For example, you might have Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem come in for an interview. Tim is a brilliant person. He has negotiated a lot of contracts, is a lawyer, and has a really deep knowledge of all the subjects that you'll be dealing with. He is a big boy and can handle a tough question even if it is on his property. Is he comfortable getting tough questions in these situations? I think he understands the rules of the road and that he's going to get some tough questions and can handle it. So, as long as you do it respectfully, everything's fine.
MG: How is this different than other media covering the Tour?
MT: First, the key point I should add is that nobody at ABC has ever told me, "Don't ask this question, don't say this about the Tour." I think sports broadcasters are all a little more cautious, are sure to open their eyes before putting their heads down and charging through that door. In general, the print media has no such relationship with the Tour, has no business partnership, and so it can go after it a little bit harder. Yes, this difference puts the TV people up for criticism which I think is justified at times. But we also have to realize that it is not the individuals doing the telecasts that are at fault here. It's the scope and relationship between broadcast media and sports leagues. It's how sports leagues sell their broadcast rights to broadcast entities.
MG: How many travel days are you away from home? Have you ever calculated your frequent flyer miles?
MT: Nope, I tried to do miles a few years ago and stopped because it was just a selfish number and it was going to make me miserable. I'm probably away from home half of the year. Some people ask me do I want to see a certain guy win a golf tournament. There comes a point on Sunday at 5:45 pm that if you have an 8 o'clock flight and it's your only chance to get home that night, you don't care who wins. You say to yourself: please, just somebody make a putt and win; I want to get to the airport so I can spend a day at home with my son and wife. Those are the things that start to happen over time.
MG: Speaking of those last putts on Sunday, since you do the British Open, you must be very pleased with its 4/5-hole playoff format in case of a tie after 72 holes.
MT: By far it's the best playoff system. They (Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) adjust the playoff holes to the golf course. If four holes don't make sense, they make it five or even three holes. Just so one silly shot doesn't win it or lose it. The golf tournament is Thursday-Sunday. I don't want to go another day and neither do the players and spectators. Fatigue comes in to play so let's just finish it while we are all there. It is the way every sport in the world does it.
MG: What's your thought on adopting an official tournament golf ball?
MT: It's definitely been bounced around by the players. I take a different perspective in some ways because I cover so many different sports besides golf. Golf is one of the few sports where everybody is playing a different ball. The one person who has been the beacon and almost clairvoyant on this subject is Jack Nicklaus. Jack has been saying for 20 years now: it is the ball, not the golf clubs. I think the more we study the matter the more Jack is right. We need to police the golf ball or we are going to lose more of these classic golf courses from tournament play. The only way to combat the hot ball now is to narrow the fairways and grow the rough. Every time they do that, the courses fight back.
MG: Do you have on your desk at home any personal mottos or inspirational messages?
MT: I don't have anything like that on my desk, but when I speak to students I'll always come back to something I heard when I was a kid. It's a saying of only 20 letters, of only 10 two-letter words. "If it is to be, it is up to me." You control so much of your life and if you are going to get it done, you've got to put the time into it. This makes a voluminous statement. You hear it in different ways and I heard it again covering college basketball this year. It was from Duke's Mike Dunleavy Jr, whose dad coached five NBA teams and played on three teams. I asked Mike what he'd learned the most from being around his dad and he said, "You control how hard you play." It's true in golf too. MG
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