ABC's "Holey Moley" offers mini-golf like you've never seen it...

ABC's "Holey Moley" offers mini-golf like you've never seen it before.  Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless

Is "Holey Moley" a game show where you whack a mole? Get dipped in Mexican chocolate sauce? Play a round of extreme obstacle-course mini-golf?

It's that last one — and, really, is "extreme obstacle-course mini-golf" any more likely for a prime-time show than the other possibilities? And that sense of the absurd is exactly what creator Chris Culvenor and fellow executive producer Jeron Smith were going for in the satiric competition premiering Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC, with comedian Rob Riggle and veteran sportscaster Joe Tessitore giving straight-faced, dryly humorous play-by-play and TV personality Jeannie Mai as sideline commentator.

"The inspiration really came from two avenues,” says Culvenor, 36, co-founder of the show's production company, Eureka." We looked around at these big physical competitions" like "American Ninja Warrior" and "Ultimate Beastmaster," he says, "and one thing that became really apparent are the people on these shows are aspirational but not relatable — super-fit gym junkies. We wanted to explore a sport that the Everyman can play. And miniature golf seemed this untapped sport for that. Everyone has a fond memory about miniature golf. So we loved that idea of taking that nostalgia and amping it up to the next level."

Perhaps “sport” is less the right term than "recreational activity," but the competitors on the 10-hole course take the silliness seriously, even when traversing humorously named obstacles like a slippery "glacier" ("Slip n' Putt”), up which golfers must clamber in order to reach the ball, or whirling windmill blades ("Dutch Courage") that not just the ball but the golfer must pass through.

"Every competitor on 'Holey Moley' is really passionate about miniature golf," says the Sydney, Australia-born Culvenor. The 12 contestants each episode, where two golfers per hole play single-elimination matches to reach the final three, each "really, really wants to win" the $25,000 prize. "I think if the contestants didn't take it seriously it wouldn't work. And if we played it totally serious like 'American Ninja Warrior,' it would seem forced."

Which doesn't mean the cartoony course — built on a large ranch in Santa Clarita, California — isn't seriously challenging: It was built and in conjunction with Eureka designed by the Los Angeles-based company The ATS Team, which creates obstacle courses and other large-scale fanciful environment for, in fact, "American Ninja Warrior," "The Titan Games," "Big Brother," "The Amazing Race" and other shows.

Indeed, an athlete, NBA star and avid golfer Stephen Curry, is one of the forces behind "Holey Moley." "Stephen has always wanted to do a show rooted in golf," says Smith, 33, who had served for over a year as deputy director of the White House Office of Digital Strategy under President Barack Obama and currently runs Curry's production company, Unanimous Media.

Was Curry actually thinking mini golf? "He didn't specify," Smith shrugs. "Golf is a passion" no matter the form, he says.

And you should have seen the holes that didn't make it to the construction stage, he adds.

"There was one where you were 20 feet up in the air and there's water underneath you and you're on a platform with concentric circles that are moving in different directions," leaving gaps where you could fall into the drink. "And you have to wait until all the surfaces align and then run to the hole. I don't remember if we even had a name for that."

How about "Holey Moley! I Don't Want to Drown!" Maybe this is a sport, after all.

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