By Tony Jimenez
WATFORD, England (Reuters) - Out went traditional golfing protocol and in came flashing lights and razzmatazz as the European Tour launched the innovative Hero Challenge one-hole knockout event ahead of this week's British Masters.
An enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 turned up at The Grove course on Tuesday night to watch former world number one and tournament host Luke Donald lead an eight-man professional line-up.
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A floodlit par-three hole, featuring a specially constructed tee where the players made their entrances to a noisy welcome from the fans and dazzling pyrotechnics up ahead on the green, was the stage for a contest won by French pro Alexander Levy.
"It's terrific, it's under lights, who would have thought it?," tour chief executive Keith Pelley told Reuters in an interview as he surveyed the scene on the outskirts of London.
"It's pretty exciting and it's definitely a chance to be a little more innovative, try things a little bit different.
"What's really rewarding to see is the incredible fan engagement with the players, every player with a smile on his face and having a great time," said Pelley.
"It's much bigger than we would ever have anticipated and I think the players are equally surprised."
With officials around the world worried about slow play and a declining interest in golf, Pelley also announced plans earlier this year for a new six-hole event incorporating a shot clock, music, different clothes and fewer clubs in an effort to attract more followers.
The Canadian, who took over as chief executive from George O'Grady just over a year ago, recognizes the need for the sport to move with the times, and the Hero Challenge could be the tour's answer to the Twenty20 format that has revolutionized cricket in recent years.
"It shows the players in a different light... which leads to people experiencing the game differently," said Pelley of an event televised live by Sky Sports. "This will not replace the traditional game and that's not the purpose.
"This is an add-on to showcase our wonderful game, the skills of our players and perhaps to get some new fans who will now not only follow these players but also perhaps come to a regular event and really enjoy it. The winner tonight has been golf."
Levy, who claimed his third tour victory by winning the European Open in Germany last month, won a first prize of 10,000 pounds ($12,435) for charity after defeating Swede Alex Noren in the final on Tuesday.
"That was a lot of fun," said Levy. "I said to Alex that I felt more pressure there than in the playoff in Germany, which is ridiculous.
"It was amazing to see the crowds and everyone enjoying it. Golf needs something like this and it is a great idea... I would love to do more of this."
England's Andy Sullivan and Andrew 'Beef' Johnston, Shane Lowry of Ireland, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger and Indian Jeev Milkha Singh were also involved in the one-hole event.
"We had a great turnout," said Donald. "The nerves were jiggling a little bit and it was different to what we are used to. It was a lot of fun though and unique."
The 72-hole British Masters starts on Thursday.
($1 = 0.8042 pounds)