News & Opinion

Short format, long gain: Euro Tour’s bold stroke

There was rock music, booming voices over the public-address system, pyrotechnics on a couple of holes and, by design, somebody dressed in a mascot suit, plus plenty of other bells and whistles.

For the multitude of kids in the gallery at the inaugural Golf Sixes, it must have felt like a trip to the grand opening at a miniature golf course.

However, while the European Tour’s format experiment was conceived to entice the younger set and its truncated attention span, a peppy distillation of the professional sport isn’t nearly enough. Golf Sixes is condensed by design, but organizers understand that credibility at the professional level cannot be sacrificed. Somewhere in the six-hole, match-play tournament, which featured teams from 16 countries, there must be equal amounts of sizzle and steak.

“The key is to get the mix right,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley told Sky Sports on Sunday morning. “It needs to be entertaining, and it needs to have the integrity of the game.”

Just because he’s biased doesn’t mean he’s wrong. The European circuit clearly is on to something, and the May 6-7 event at Centurion Club in St. Albans, England, was all the more enjoyable given the back story. Like the tournament itself, where pace is a design essential, the event was conceived and executed in a span of three months, Pelley said.

Although Golf Sixes was longer on novelty than nuance, the appeal was immediate. If a 72-hole stroke-play event is a marathon, Golf Sixes was a series of 100-meter sprints, with a sprinkling of intentionally glitzy elements that Usain Bolt would have embraced. Lactose-intolerance alert: “This is going to be the cheesiest line ever,” English Ryder Cupper Andy Sullivan told Sky, “but golf is the winner here.”

It represents a shortened version of the sport, but mini-golf, it isn’t. In fact, brevity made it more entertaining. Every shot is magnified, because the six-hole matches last about an hour. For fans of instant gratification, it was hard to top.

“I love this format,” Italy’s Matteo Manassero said between shots of his semifinal match Sunday. “It’s so quick, you have no time to miss [and recover].”

Yep, players were conducting interviews during live play. Whereas stroke-play can feel as staid, stodgy and predictable as a plaid necktie, the six-hole format breezes along, thanks in part to a shot clock that was placed on the fourth hole to spice things up. The American team of Paul Peterson and David Lipsky, in fact, drew ridicule and a penalty for using too much timeSaturday.

The first tee box included over-the-top introductions, pyrotechnics, fans waving national flags and kids positioned inside the ropes and conveniently within view of the TV cameras. Players waved their national flag overhead and low-fived the kids, most of them younger than 10.

Translated: The target audience. For the video-game generation, the format is frenetic compared with stroke play. Sixteen pairs of players, sorted by nationality, began the two-day event in four-team pool play Saturday, with the two top teams in each group advancing to Sunday’s elimination round. For the record, Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen and Lucas Bjerregaard shaded Australia’s Scott Hend and Sam Brazel in the final, 3-1.

Pelley is a former CEO of a Canadian Football League team, so he understands what it’s like to play in the shadow of a sunshine-swallowing behemoth, the National Football League. In all but a few weeks of the year, the European Tour is every bit as outgunned by the cash machine called the PGA Tour. The past weekend’s offering deconstructed the typical TV-era pro tournament.

In fact, there were harbingers of the fabled Silly Season, for those viewers old enough to remember when the U.S. tour had an actual offseason. That now-defunct stretch featured a three-tour shootout that included seniors and LPGA players, and a big-money Skins Game.

The presentation at Centurion Club just north of London was impressive, particularly given the lack of logistics time. The six-hole mini-course started with a par 3, allowing the fans stationed in the grandstands at the opening tee to see players finish the hole. The final hole was a reachable par 5, where eagles were plentiful.

Make no mistake: It’s never been the world tour’s responsibility to grow the game, only the gallery. This format might achieve both.

After all, with fan attention spans growing shorter – in a capitulation to the same gods of brevity, stories in this newsletter are limited in word count – there must be room for another flavor. The stultifying sameness of 72-hole events played over a 12-month season can bore even the heartiest fans. Even compared with traditional match play, Golf Sixes has far more players in the mix on the final day.

Four-day events generally identify the best player. In Golf Sixes, teams bombed out of the knockout round in fewer than 60 minutes, almost before they knew what happened. It could become a different sort of Fast and Furious franchise.

“This can really be something big in the future for golf,” Sullivan said. “You won't get away from the traditional 72, but I think a few more events like this could really transform golf.”

Pelley was polling fans and players on Sunday about future tweaks to the format, which was conjured up “on the go,” as he put it. “I think we’re on to an idea here that can really grow,” Pelley told Sky.

To be categorized as something other than gimmickry, they’ll need an infusion of cash from sponsors and a commitment from more marquee players.

“There is definitely something we can build on here,” Pelley said. “It’ll be a brand that we’ll definitely bring back. We’re going to do a lot of research now and listen to our stakeholders.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling