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Rio Olympics: After big names pull out because of Zika fears, NBC wins with Olympic golf

USA's Matt Kuchar reacts after putting for par

USA's Matt Kuchar reacts after putting for par on the 18th green during the final round of men's golf at the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Golf Course on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ross Kinnaird

NBC has an investment in every Olympic sport, but some more than others.

Take golf. The sport’s return to the Games after a 112-year break was a big deal for the network, given the resources it poured into covering the tournaments, and the fact the action is being shown primarily on NBC-owned Golf Channel.

That is one reason NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus bluntly called the withdrawals of some of men’s golf’s biggest names “surprising and disappointing” at a media briefing in Manhattan last month.

But so far NBC has had the last laugh, with the men’s tournament featuring a close finish and the medalists being recognizable names in Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar, all of whom seemed moved by the event.

The network said its coverage of the final 90 minutes of the men’s tournament averaged 5.6 percent of homes and 8.8 million viewers. Only the Masters had a higher-rated comparable window in the final round of a golf tournament this year.

On Golf Channel, analyst Jerry Foltz said, ““The majors are the biggest things in this cocoon of the sport in which we live. But [Sunday] was witnessing something that was bigger than the sport itself. It was maybe the biggest achievement in golf, and somewhere down the road it will likely be remembered as that.

“Because it transcends the game that we cover each and every day and week and it was a sense of accomplishment that transcended the game [throughout] the entire world of Olympic sport. Finally, it wasn’t about who wasn’t here, it was about who was here.”

NBC analyst Johnny Miller made a pointed reference to the stars who had skipped the tournament in part over fear of the Zika virus, cracking, “By the way, no mosquitos,” late in Sunday’s telecast.

On Monday, NBC executives and announcers held a conference call with reporters to preview the women’s event, which opens Wednesday, and while doing so gushed about the quality of the experience to date, and how it might grow the sport in countries where it is less popular, including Brazil.

Analyst Annika Sorenstam said the female players who will tee it up Wednesday clearly have embraced the event and its trappings.

“It’s really fun to listen to the players, and certainly watching it on social media, all the photos, all the tweets,” she said. “They’re running out of words to describe this incredible feeling. Golf is part of something really big here, and I think a lot of players are realizing that, especially the players that are staying in the Athletes’ Village.

“I spoke to some of the Spanish players, and they’re having breakfast with [Rafael] Nadal, and they’re taking photos. I want to talk golf with them, and they want to talk about their athletes. It’s really fun. They’re excited to be part of something so big.

“After their practice rounds, they all have plans to go see swimming or gymnastics or diving. They’re planning to do things that you normally won’t see at another event. So I think they’re having the time of their life, which makes it even more special because they don’t even know if they’ll ever get a chance to come back. So they’re making the most out of it.

“I think that’s what the neatest thing is. They’re athletes, and they feel like they’re part of something, and they want to share the stories. Just living in this area, you see different coaches, you see athletes, and it’s just -- I don’t know. I feel a bond walking here. Obviously, I haven’t played and I’m not going to play, but just talking sports. It’s like a big family. That’s how I feel.”

New York Sports