The European Tour debuted its first in a series of new "short form" events on Tuesday night in the United Kingdom, just two days before the British Masters at The Grove. The Hero Challenge was a brisk one-hour, prime-time show over in the U.K., broadcast back in the U.S. at 2:30 p.m. ET on Golf Channel.
The format was pretty simple -- an eight-man, single-elimination bracket for one-hole matches on a 145-yard par-3. There's not much out there on a random Tuesday afternoon in mid-October, so the event did pop a bit on social media during a dead time. It's a creative attempt by the Euro Tour and its new leadership under Keith Pelley, who has been aggressive trying to come up with new concepts for his tour. Everyone in the game -- even the stodgy green jackets of Augusta -- is always trying to figure out how to draw a bigger audience, a new audience, make things faster and more entertaining. That's the goal of these short-form events.
The cynics will scoff. The #brands with an interest will overhype. These may flop or they may succeed. It's not going to change the game. There will still be four majors and an interminable season-long schedule full of 72-hole stroke play tournaments with enormous purses. But it was worth trying and commending the Euro Tour for pushing it through. Here's what we liked and didn't like about this first short-form spectacle.
What we liked
ProTracer in the evening
There is no circumstance in which ProTracer makes a golf broadcast worse. No one has ever said it got in the way or interfered with the viewing experience. It's an incredibly valuable and desirable technology and it's hard to have too much. The Hero Challenge explored the frontier of nighttime ProTracer and, man, was it sexy. The white streak outlined against a crisp, jet-black sky ...
One major complaint about golf on TV is that the game is too slow. The rounds take five hours. Watching a broadcast requires too much investment in time. This has been a complaint for years and it will drone on for many more years to come. It's hard to see that problem getting fixed or changing much. This was a nice bite-sized alternative that lasted just over an hour. That's the goal of these short-form events and it would be cool to see the PGA Tour try and do a series of these for a prime-time USA audience.
There's a tendency to over-complicate these silly season attempts. Scoring can get confusing. The format can be nebulous. Some go to extremes to make something so far removed and different from the "normal" weekly golf that it can get dizzying.
This Hero Challenge kept it simple. It was one-on-one match play for one hole. The best score on the par-3 wins and advances to the next line of the eight-man, single-elimination bracket. If both players made a par, the closest-to-the-hole measurement on the tee shot broke the tie. That was it.
You did not need to read a full page of rules to figure it out and you didn't get lost in the broadcast trying to keep up with the score, who was leading, or who might still be alive. It helped the viewing experience and moved things along quickly.
Flaaaaaaaamessss. So this probably had some traditionalists a bit huffy, but for one nighttime show, it was fun. There were flames at impact on the tee and flames all around the green when the ball touched down on the putting surface.
This was a made-for-TV presentation and while it would be hokey on a weekly basis, it was fine and perfectly enjoyable in this new approach. We don't expect the Masters to have smoke machines on the 12th tee or flames shooting out of the azaleas next April.
A rowdy crowd
This was not your typical golf crowd. They cheered through the practice routines and the swings, shouted throughout play, booed when applicable, and often gave the players crap. The fans were crowded several deep around the tee box and up on the green, where some Ryder Cup-esque grandstands were filled for the evening festivities. At one point, Luke Donald took a shot at the USA Ryder Cup team when noting that he wasn't, by rule, allowed to concede a short putt to his opponent. The crowd erupted.
It was after dinner and the fans were obviously well-hydrated. The players embraced it, engaging them and playing through the din. Why not try for more of these settings?
What we didn't like
The celebrity diversion
Nothing is made better by the presence of Piers Morgan.
The celebrity contest came at the midpoint of the pro contest, with the semis and finals still to play. I thought it slowed everything down -- maybe because I'm an American and these celebs didn't resonate much with me. I understand this is also an attempt to bring in more non-traditional golf fans and and cast a wider net to boost interest. But Piers Morgan preening for the camera, making some terrible jokes, and shanking the shit out of the ball made me lose interest quickly and start doing other things.
I want to die.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) September 2, 2012
Too much banter at times
Overall, I enjoyed the made-for-TV nature of the event, where the two SkySports hosts talked with the players before, during, and after almost every shot. We don't get that interaction during a normal golf event. But sometimes there was just too much banter with the broadcasters and that slowed things down when you really just wanted to see the next shot.
And there was definitely wayyyy too much banter during the celeb portion.
Losing big names early
This is always the danger of match play. It's a fickle format where your star player or top draw can get bounced in the first round or early in the proceedings and then you're left with lesser-known talents carrying the broadcast in what are supposed to be the most important final stages.
The event would have been better had "Beef" Johnston not been knocked out in the first round by Shane Lowry. This is the kind of silly season show that is great for someone like Beef, who was one of the biggest names in the eight-man field. Beef, Ryder Cupper Andy Sullivan, Lowry, and Luke Donald can all be outsized personalities well-suited for this kind of show. We were left with a finals of Alex Noren vs. Alex Levy, which -- full disclosure of American bias again! -- was not the most appealing championship match.