Moments after hoisting the inaugural Netflix Cup aloft, which he won alongside two-time major champion and golf partner Justin Thomas, dashing Spanish Formula 1 driver Carlos Sainz, Jr. dropped the trophy, its oversized upper bowl breaking off from its undersized pedestal.
It was a perfect metaphor for Tuesday’s event, Netflix’s occasionally amusing but unfocused first foray into live sports.
The Netflix Cup, in principle, was a good idea. Formula 1 and golf have both been areas of strength in sports content for the streamer (in the form of docuseries Drive to Survive on the racetrack and Full Swing on the golf course). Vegas being a golf hotbed, leaning on both sports to do some promotion for the flashy Las Vegas Grand Prix this weekend as the world’s favorite motorsport returns to Sin City after three decades made sense.
Four PGA Tour pros, each paired with a golf-obsessed racer, in the middle of the Strip on the lush Wynn Golf Club as the desert sun sets and the countless twinkling lights of the city - plus the $2 billion Sphere - shine down on the players...what could go wrong?
Leaning on the personalities and overall tableau would have made for a fun Tuesday night’s diversion, but The Netflix Cup ultimately buckled under its own weight as its organizers took its host city’s penchant for excess to a chaotic extreme.
The event, which began promptly at 6 pm Eastern, failed to grab viewers' attention. It would have done well to mimic actual Formula 1 broadcasts, which throw viewers into racing action in as little as five minutes. Alas, a long, distracting introduction meant that it took a full 13 minutes before a single golf shot was struck.
And when the action did finally begin, it was a complete mess. The first of each eight-hole match (two golfer/driver teams per match, playing a two-man scramble, setting up a closest-to-the-pin final showdown) was a "Speed Hole," its tee box adorned with an F1-style row of starting lights (which didn't cooperate at first - an early tech blunder). The team that finished the hole first would be declared the winner.
The problem was that with four golfers hitting shots, jumping in their souped-up golf carts and scrambling toward the green simultaneous, it was utterly impossible for both viewers and commentators Kay Adams (FanduelTV show host) and PGA Tour pro Joel Dahmen to have any idea what was going on until the commotion was over. Again, a fun idea in theory, but not in execution.
Another complicating factor of the broadcast was the constant drumbeat of context-optional celebrity cameos and interviews – Blake Griffin and Steve Aoki standing on a tee box! Patrick Mahomes patched in via video-chat! – that took away from the action. Arguably the most dramatic golf moment of the evening, when the team of Thomas and Sainz halved the par-5 second hole with an eagle against the team of Rickie Fowler and Lando Norris, was completely overshadowed by an insipid interview with Mark Wahlberg. The moment typified the event’s reluctance to let the actual golf action carry it, despite a breathtaking setting and well-known competitors.
For his part, Dahmen – whose episode in the first season of Full Swing was excellent – emerged as a star of the evening as he tried valiantly to keep the car from crashing. Whenever he spoke, he delivered real insight into both the PGA Tour players’ games and personalities, as well as the common foibles of their weekly pro-am partners. His dry and self-deprecating wit flowed naturally and was an oasis of authenticity in an event defined by artifice. “It looks like a toothpick in his hands,” Dahmen said at one point as last-minute fill-in Tony Finau (for Collin Morikawa, who is nursing a back injury) wielded a driver. Dahmen also gave Finau props for being the most powerful player on tour when he wants to be: “He just hit 200 mile per hour ball speed in a Power Ranger costume on Halloween!” Dahmen was also unafraid to point out some of the horrendous shots Finau’s partner Pierre Gasly hit, including a cold shank from a fairway and a foozled drive.
Dahmen is in the midst of a solid playing career, but he proved he has the chops for the commentary box should he ever want to trade his mid-irons for a microphone.
Though the tempo dragged – slow play was inevitable given the format and amount of distractions, including a Squid Games themed challenge that all but forced players to take five times as long as normal to hit a tee shot – the broadcast was most enjoyable when it looked most like a typical silly-season golf broadcast and just let viewers watch the pros and celebrities play and interact.
Thai driver Alexander Albon was particularly delightful to watch – he was genuinely excited to be there, relishing the opportunity to play a little golf alongside his equally affable partner Max Homa. He slipped and fell while hitting a shot from a dewy sidehill lie on a par 5, but bounced back up with a smile on his face.
Like Dahmen’s commentary, Albon’s good nature lent much-needed genuineness to an otherwise cluttered, showy and trying viewing experience. Here’s hoping Netflix gives live golf another shot in the future and stays on track next time.