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Speedy GolfSixes tournament not afraid to make changes

ST. ALBANS, England -- In theory, the England team planned to arrive onto the first tee at the European Tour's inaugural and radical GolfSixes to the sound of The Kaiser Chiefs song "I Predict a Riot," a suitably anarchic cry for a tournament designed to break the mold. In practice, royalty rights prevented entrance songs, and there was no riot.

Instead, in the very English setting of the Centurion Club in St. Albans, there was a very English revolution. We witnessed changeable weather, polite enthusiasm and a lot of good will. There were times, in fact, when it resembled the most English setting of all -- a village or church fair, albeit with a deliberate show-biz, fun-time filter.

Where a fete might have raffle draws, pony rides and cake stalls, GolfSixes had nearest-the-pin to settle third place, longest drive holes and whiskey huts. It had professional warm-up acts provoking excitement on the first tee, loudest cheer contests to win prizes among the galleries and shot clocks. It had celebrity commentators, fan zones and on-course player interviews.

Some of it worked; some of it didn't. But throughout the two-day event, it was always apparent that the goodwill never dimmed. British golf is not known for its tolerance of frippery and gimmicks, but even when cringing at the misfiring innovations, the skeptical types (mostly) took it on the chin.

It might be that this reaction was as radical as the continuing rise of six-hole golf on the European Tour because it proved that everyone in golf wants something different; they want an alternative; they want it to work; they care.

Right from the get-go on Saturday morning there was a buzz around the course, with the first question on everyone's lips: "What do you think?" Discussion about what could be improved upon in the future raged even as the new ideas played out in front of us.

The longest drive hole? Introduce NFL-style yardage lines across the fairway next time. The lull that followed the introduction of the players through smoke onto the first tee? Maintain the momentum with more music, more noise, lots of it. The 15-minute break between matches? Shorten it to 10. The awkward interlude between groups? Get fans chipping for prizes, smashing balls on the longest drive hole or playing nearest the pin.

The responses of Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan, who combined to compete for England, was entirely keeping with the general feeling, their contrasting personalities reflecting two strains of national characteristics: Wood possessing English diffidence, Sullivan more typical of English football fans.

"To be honest, I could do without the music and the flag-waving and all that," Wood said. "But I totally get it. I think it really worked, and I can see it in big cities like Manchester, New York or Paris. They've promoted this really well and I think, with the odd change, it will go from strength to strength."

He then added: "Sully was made for stuff like this." And his partner was, having particular fun when first encountering the shot clock, letting it run down from 40 seconds, allowing the galleries to shout the countdown around him, before pulling the trigger at the very last second.

Encouragingly, when it became apparent in the first set of matches that 40 seconds was more than plenty, the European Tour cut it to 30 seconds from the third set onwards -- a move that said everything about the weekend. In most weeks golf authorities would timetable a committee to look into the matter, discuss it, discuss it some more, and then maybe think about a change in the distant future.

On this occasion they just got on with it. What's more, the players led the reform, arguing to make the change when the field staff were more reluctant.

Paul Peterson of Team USA was the only man not on message, not only gaining a penalty shot for being too slow but also raising smiles when claiming his left-handedness was the cause. (The clock was behind rather than in front of him.)

Sullivan was certain about the benefits of the shot clock. He was one of many in the field who wished it had been in use right across the course rather than just on the fourth hole.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "What we found is we have such a long time. You've got ages, and it's embarrassing when playing on the Tour and it's taking that long. I think that's highlighted a lot of things, really."

His partner Wood added: "Someone got done and is probably a bit humiliated today, and I think that's quite a lot to do with it. Sully is right, there's too much leniency." We have not seen the last of the shot clock.

Sullivan was equally enthusiastic about the vibe and the format. "The atmosphere out here from the start has been brilliant," he said. "Obviously being the host nation there's a lot of home support, which is fantastic for us. Hopefully this can really be something big in the future for golf. You won't get away from the traditional 72, but I think a few more events like this could really transform golf."

Some worried that in the frenzy to entertain, the essential element of all sport -- the urge and need to win -- would be lost. Wood dismissed such notions.

"I thought we could go on and win it," he said after they were dumped out by Italy in the last eight. "We're disappointed and I think that says a lot. We wanted to go on and try and win it."

What matters is that the golf works, and this shortened version of the game feels intrinsically the best of the many attempts to attract a new audience. Six years ago, the European Tour tried PowerPlay Golf, which used nine holes with two flags on the greens, one of them easy, another hard (consequently rewarded with more shots against par).

It wasn't particularly fast and caused confusion on the course because no one in the gallery knew which pin the golfers were aiming at, so they had little clue if the shots were good, bad or indifferent.

GolfSixes, in contrast, flies by the seat of its pants. The first six-hole quarterfinal match between England and Italy zipped 'round the course in exactly one hour.

Some argued that there was insufficient time for ebb and flow, yet on Saturday afternoon, the Italians were bottom of their group, facing a 10-foot birdie putt for a halve on the penultimate hole of their last match.

Matteo Manassero holed that putt, drained another on the final green from twice the distance, and they progressed. In 10 minutes they had transformed their weekend aspirations. They ultimately finished fourth.

Ahead of them the Danes -- Thorbjorn Olesen and Lucas Bjerregaard -- completed victory in the final against the Australians Scott Hend and Sam Brazel. Olesen was enthused by the formula of short-course golf.

"It was intense," he said, sighing. "It actually feels like we played 72 or 100 holes. It's been so much fun. I can see it really taking off and there's no reason why there shouldn't be more events like this on the schedule."

Should that be the case -- and there seems little doubt from conversations with European Tour staff that the experiment will continue -- then a clear objective will be to draw a stronger field. The speed with which this event was put together, and the near clash with The Players Championship on the PGA Tour, meant this field was inevitably weak. Six-hole clashes involving bigger crowds, roaring on Europe's biggest stars with less than golflike decorum, had many licking their lips.

In fact, it was notable that the tenor of the argument come Sunday evening was not who didn't appear in the first GolfSixes, but who might perform in future versions, when we can expect bigger purses than the €1 million (roughly $1.1 million) on offer this week (€200,000 or $220K to the winning team.)

Third-placed Richie Ramsay, representing Scotland, agreed.

"The biggest thing is, there were a lot of young kids out watching, and hopefully they say to their mom and dad, 'We want to try golf,'" he said.

It was a pertinent observation and might well hint at the future success of the tournament. Six months ago, The Grove Golf Club, just 10 miles from the Centurion Club, hosted the British Masters, and three fathers attended that event on their own.

This week? All three were in attendance with their wives and children. We witnessed no riot at the Centurion Club, but we saw change, and GolfSixes looks like a long-term feature.

Do not be surprised if the next venture is across the English Channel or North Sea, however. There was a growing belief throughout the weekend -- one that didn't go unnoticed by tour staff -- that where British golf fans needed prompting from their natural reserve, continental Europeans might have naturally embraced the concept.

The Dutch team of Joost Luiten and Reinier Saxton had their girlfriends carry their bags wearing the national colors. The wife of Johan Carlsson walked the course in a Swedish football shirt alongside friends doing the same.

It's not difficult to imagine that a GolfSixes event held in the Netherlands or Sweden would have fairways flocked with fans in bright costumes, loudly supporting their nations, instinctively alive to the tournament dynamic.

The future is bright for six-hole golf -- and that future might be orange (or yellow and blue).