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For now, a Golden game

Rick Miller and his two buddies don't look up at the four single women sitting right behind them in Mac's Sports Pub.

The women are dressed to impress in blouses and crushed velvet tops that reveal more skin than they cover. They have put back a few drinks. They aren't here to watch the college football game.

Still, Miller and his friends don't make a move. They don't even make eye contact.

The women have been trumped by the temptation of an eagle putt, the shape of a sweetly struck three wood with a gorgeous little right to left draw.

The men have succumbed to Golden Tee, a video golf game so consuming that it has upset long-established mating rituals in pubs and taverns across the country. It is also perhaps the most successful coin-operated video game in history, with its first World Championships being contested this week in Orlando.

"Does Tiger Woods flirt with the ladies as he's setting up for a four iron into a tight green?" asks Miller, a financial planner.

Well, no. But then again, Tiger Woods isn't drinking a Budweiser, taking a long pull on a Camel and wearing flip-flops as he plays, either.

Therein may lie the genius of Golden Tee.

Slamming the track ball

Most people find Golden Tee easy to learn but hard to master. Players pull back on a track ball with their palm or thumbs to get the golfer to draw the club back and then push the ball forward for the downswing and follow through. The player must choose the proper club for the situation and know the best spots to aim the ball.

Players can add draws and fades, or in the case of less skilled players, hooks and slices, by manipulating the track ball left and right during the swing. The longest drivers of the ball, the ones that hit the 400-yarders, slam down on the track ball with the force of a Mike Tyson punch. Stories abound about broken fingers and cut hands.

"Yeah, hitting the huge drive comes with a risk," said Walker Smith, a carpet layer playing at Park Place Billiard Club in Clearwater. "But watching the ball fly soothes the pain."

Golden Tee's maker, Incredible Technologies Inc., loads its games with new courses every year. On some, water lurks everywhere, enticing the no-guts, no-glory crowd to risk disaster for a chance at an eagle or a hole out. Greens undulate like mountain roads. Pin placements change daily.

The weather fluctuates, too, sometimes from hole to hole. Rain can drench players on the seventh hole, or the wind might blow up on the 15th. Serious players swap advice on Incredible Technologies' Web site about how best to tackle the courses each day.

Like regular golf, the game is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Strategy and course management are tantamount to winning. Flub a sand shot or fail to read the green and blood pressure spikes, curse words pour forth.

The designers keep gimmicks to a minimum, although truly terrible players who hit far off the fairway might encounter Jimmy Hoffa's headstone. Well-known play-by-play man Pat Summerall and PGA player Peter Jacobsen do the commentating and analysis. An 18-hole round costs $3 a player and can take more than an hour for a foursome to finish.

"You play it with friends while drinking some beers or eating chicken wings," said Kevin Reeves, between shots at the Red Dog Bar & Grill in South Tampa. "It's fun and doesn't take as long as regular golf. Everyone's happy, including my wife."

And Incredible Technologies. In the next 12 months, the Arlington Heights, Ill., company expects $350-million to pass through the 100,000 machines operating worldwide.

The game, however, had more humble beginnings.

In the late 1980s, video game designer Jim Zielinski and his partner pitched a golf game to their bosses at Incredible Technologies. Compared with the high velocity games dominating the market at the time, a game based on golf seemed to be a long shot. Earlier golf games such as Birdie King had done okay but were hardly competition for Space Invaders and Pac Man.

Zielinski and his supporters pushed on, releasing the inaugural version in 1989 and an updated one in 1995.

"We were just trying to make a game that was fun," he said. "Who knew what would happen next?"

On the "tour'

Many weekdays after work, a regular crowd of guys dominates the two machines at the Green Parrot Pub on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood. The first wave comes in from construction sites and labor jobs around 4 p.m. An hour or so later, they cede the machines to the happy hour crowd of accountants, teachers and office workers. On a recent Wednesday, lawyers in power ties wandered in around 6:30 p.m. for a round on the Crawdad Swamp course.

"Those Golden Tee machines stay busy like that all night," said manager Dan Boyle. "And some of the people who play them, you wouldn't really think would be into video games."

In part, that explains the game's enormous popularity. Golden Tee has made it cool to play a video game in public. Golden Tee players, while still overwhelmingly men, tend to be older, wealthier and better employed than the teenagers of lore, shuttered away in dark arcades.

In some parts of the country, players call their local watering holes to make tee times. The company has persuaded bars, taverns and restaurants to purchase second or third machines to cope with the overflow.

Starting in the mid 1990s, Golden Tee also incorporated tournament play in the repertoire. Players could compete against other players all over the country.

The introduction of Golden Tee Fore! in 1999 brought better sound and playability and a more three-dimensional look. It also took the tournament concept to a whole new level. About 24,000 of the Golden Tee Fore! machines sold so far come with phone lines that relay scores to the central office in Illinois. Almost 300,000 players have paid $2 to buy a "Gold Card," which tracks their scores online and allows easy entry to tournaments.

Tournament play has also allowed Incredible Technologies to shake up the traditional business model. Video game makers usually sold their games to distributors, who then sold them to an amusement operator. The amusement operator found locations, serviced the games and split the proceeds 50/50 with the bar or arcade.

Incredible Technologies makes money selling the games to distributors, but it also has a piece of the coin box. For running the tournaments, the company gets $1.50 from each $4 put in the machine during tournament play and a smaller portion from league play.

"When they first started, the model was unique to the business," said Steve White, editor of the industry trade magazine RePlay. "Now everyone is trying to emulate it."

The company sponsors online tournaments the first three weeks of each month, putting up about $250,000 in prize money. Many competitors play 40 or more games a week. The truly hard-core players can record more than 1,000 in one month. (Their wives may not be so happy.) The payouts are legal in most states because the game is seen as requiring mostly skill, not chance.

Want to win the top monthly prize of $2,500? You'd better be good. Last month's winner shot 19 under par for nine holes on the Leafy Links course.

Gary Colabuono, the company's director of marketing, thinks tournament play helped put Golden Tee over the top. He likes to joke that the game gives guys three of the four things they need in life: a reason to get out and meet friends, to drink beer and to compete.

"We'll leave sex up to them," he said.

Top player Greg Kinzler has made more than $30,000 in the past two years playing Golden Tee. Kinzler can likely beat your socks off on the real turf as well, Colabuono said. He hopes to use the winnings to finance a run at getting his real PGA tour card.

The game also provides a fertile forum for gambling, something the company does not encourage. Even so, rumors abound of five-figure wagers and meltdowns over missed gimme putts.

The Chicago Sun Times reported that one man's wife left him after his gambling on Golden Tee consumed his life. He was spending 25 hours a week away from his family and went to Las Vegas to play when his wife was 8{ months pregnant. He spent four months in Gamblers Anonymous, and his wife took him back.

Video game Ryder Cup

Mild-mannered Steve Sobe sees Golden Tee like any other pastime. Keep the game in perspective and don't let it control your life, he cautions. Sound advice from the man who has spent enough time on the game to be considered the greatest Golden Tee player in history.

Sobe, of Mount Airy, N.C., spends his days helping out with his family's charter bus business. In his off time, he plays a few games a day at a Golden Tee club with a handful of machines.

He discovered the game in 1996. He wasn't really into video games but liked figuring out new ways around the courses. Practicing fades and draws. And putting, lots of putting. Uphill. Downhill. Short. Long. Big breakers and those deceiving straight ones.

"It's not a keyboard or joystick game. It's got real feel and good touch to it," Sobe said.

Today, the 29-year-old is the reigning three-time U.S. champion and has amassed six-figure winnings in tournament play, including more than $45,000 in 2001-02.

His online moniker, Steven S, provokes respectful nods from knowledgeable players.

"It's kind of hard to believe, really," said Sobe, who routinely shoots 16 under or better in nine holes of tournament play. "I'm still getting used to the attention."

Starting today, he gets a chance to add to his legend. He is scheduled to be in Orlando for the first Golden Tee World Championships, where he will help anchor a 16-member U.S. team that will take on international rivals in a Ryder Cup-like event for world supremacy.

The next day, the 32 players will showdown in individual competition to crown the first World Champion. The winner gets $15,000.

Incredible Technologies is picking up the tab for the U.S team, and its international partners are bringing in the players from Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Incredible Technologies has also put up $57,000 in prize money.

The Americans are heavily favored, having played the game longer, but Sobe isn't taking the international team lightly.

"I don't want to hear them brag for a year," he said. "I want to brag for a year."

Keys to the kingdom

Golden Tee has disproved the oft-quoted theory that most coin-operated games have a shelf life of only slightly longer than a popular movie. But will the growing legion of players push Golden Tee past the popularity of video game icons like Pac Man? Has it already?

White, the RePlay editor, uses the analogy of boxing champs from different eras like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali squaring off. Who knows who would win? But they certainly belong in the same ring, he said.

The Golden Tee phenomenon continues to amaze White, and he would not predict any slowdown. There's still a huge international market to tap. Also, maybe some future version of Golden Tee will be the coin-operated game that finally attracts women.

"Right now, they have a game that players demand," White said. "In this business, those are the keys to the kingdom."