ORLANDO -- Most golf fans probably thought the last Major tournament of the year was the PGA Championship back in August. Maybe some considered the Tour Championship two weeks ago to be a fifth and final Major.
But they forgot one. The World Championship.
That is, the World Championship of Golden Tee.
For those who don't know, Golden Tee is the arcade video golf game that's now a mainstay at practically every sports bar in the country, right alongside the pool table and the dartboard. But even avid Tee players may be surprised to learn there's been a World Championship tournament run by the game's parent company, Incredible Technologies, for the past two years.
Last week in Orlando, 32 players from six different countries competed for the coveted title and a $15,000 grand prize check. And I've got to tell you - it was a lot more exciting than you might think.
When I walked into the Friday's Front Row Sports Grill at 10:45 on a Monday morning, Day 1 of the tournament, the set-up was impressive. A private area of the restaurant had been roped off, and eight Tee machines had been stationed around the perimeter of the room. Each machine had a TV either overhead or alongside it, so spectators could watch the games from afar.
Thousands of players, from nine countries altogether, attempted to make it to Orlando by winning qualifying tournaments in their respective countries. In the end, 16 Americans were selected, along with 16 international players hailing from Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The first day of the tournament is Golden Tee's version of the Ryder Cup. The U.S. team takes on the World team in a series of matches for the team title. First, two-man teams from each side play a round of alternating holes -- teammates take turns, playing every other hole. Then the teams play another round, alternating every shot instead of every hole. Finally, there are four rounds of singles matches -- so everyone gets to play singles twice.
The U.S. team, as expected, took a commanding early lead. After all, Golden Tee has been in America longer than anywhere else. The U.S. won the team title last year, 34-14.
But from the very beginning, I was blown away by how good all the players were. They don't play the golf course -- they annihilate it. On Par-4s, they shoot for the pin right off the tee. They bounce balls off boulders and wooden bridges onto the green. There are eagles galore. Birdie is an average score, at best.
Several players immediately ripped off rounds of better than 20-under par. Some claim to have shot better than 30-under in the past.
But the international players were much more competitive this year. Marty Awatere, the New Zealand national champion, had a particularly good day. Along with fellow Kiwi Mike Norman, he took out one of the top-ranked U.S. teams in an early Ryder Cup match.
The 27-year-old from Lower Hutt, Wellington, said he would have enjoyed himself in Orlando no matter what the results.
"The thing that draws me is the experience," Marty said. "I've fallen in love with this game. It's become an addiction. And coming here, watching these superstars play, I get to see them pull off shots I've never even seen before. It's just amazing."
It also can't hurt that Incredible Technologies pays for all the players to come to Orlando, puts them up in a beautiful nearby resort, and pads their pockets with a few hundred dollars in spending money.
The U.S. team ended up taking the Ryder Cup title again, 28-20 this time around. But Marty didn't get too excited.
"The big guns weren't showing their full deck," he said. "They were saving their best shots for tomorrow. That's when the real competition begins."
Marty was right. Tuesday's individual title, and the $15,000 that went along with it, was what everyone was focused on. The favorites all seemed relaxed on Monday, chatting with me about their personal histories with the game.
Ryan Bourgeois, a 32-year-old from Houston, was the captain of this year's U.S. team, by virtue of winning the U.S. national championship, the second-biggest tournament of the year, in Las Vegas. His lifetime Golden Tee scoring average is better than 22-under par. He has 1,610 lifetime holes-in-one. And he's already earned more than $95,000 playing Tee during the 2002-2003 season.
"The first time I played Golden Tee, honestly, I didn't really like it," Ryan admitted. "But I played it a few more times, and then suddenly I just couldn't quit.
"They add new courses every year. The game changes, and you can never be good enough," he added. "It's so great because you can never, ever master this game."
This, despite the fact Ryan estimates he's played about 2,000 games of Golden Tee each year for the last seven years. He has a machine in his house, but he only plays three-to-four days a week now that he has a five-month-old daughter to take care of.
But his wife is very supportive of his Tee career. "She doesn't mind it," Ryan said. "She sees the checks."
Meanwhile, 30-year-old Steve Sobe, hailing from Mt. Airy, North Carolina, also felt quite confident on Monday. Steve won the U.S. national championship for three consecutive years, from 2000-2002. His lifetime scoring average is better than 21-under par. He has 770 lifetime holes-in-one. And he's made over $50,000 already this season playing the game.
Steve started playing regularly eight years ago with a few friends, and said none of them realized they were any good until they won $1,500 for placing third in a tourney a year or so after they started playing.
"I'll be honest, I got hooked on the money factor," Steve said. "I was like, 'Heck, you're gonna pay me to play this?' "
Steve estimated he's made more than a quarter of a million dollars playing the game over the course of his Golden Tee career. Every year, through the Incredible Technologies website (which keeps stats for all its registered players), Steve prints out his stats and earnings and then sends that print-out to the IRS. That way, he's able to declare the money he puts into Golden Tee as a tax write-off.
And Steve doesn't let injuries hinder his game. Many players suffer cuts on their hands from how violently they swing forward on the game console's trackball to get power on their shots. Players have even broken hands playing Golden Tee.
"I'm usually the one bleeding," Steve said. "But I just say, 'Patch me up so I can keep playing!' I even learned to play left-handed. Nothing's gonna stop me. I'll take the pain, if that's what it takes to win."
But Steve Sobe wasn't the the favorite in Orlando, according to many people around the tournament. The favorite was Chris Eversole, a 25-year-old player from Atlanta. Eversole, a relative newcomer to the game, only began to play in April 2002. But he arrived in Orlando on a tear, having won four consecutive tournaments dating back to July.
Chris plays at least four or five games a day at the machine he has in his home. "But it's totally different when you're playing in a live tournament," Chris said. "You have to have your nerves completely under control to win."
Tuesday's competition started at 10 a.m., and the atmosphere was different from the get-go. Unlike all other Golden Tee tournaments, which are double-elimination, the World Championship is single-elimination. Lose one, and you're done.
The international players definitely seemed looser -- probably because less was expected of them. All the players were asked to wear khakis or jeans instead of shorts. But Scotland's Davy Reid sported a traditional Scottish kilt. And New Zealander Mike Norman had a Miller Lite in his hand when his match began shortly after 10.
The draw was divided into a U.S. half and a World half. Each side would battle it out among themselves, guaranteeing a U.S. player and a World player in the championship match. Each draw was put together using qualifier rankings.
There were a couple of early upsets. The shocker came in the final match of the first round, when heavy underdog Mark Firestone took out Steve Sobe. In the world of Golden Tee, this is earth-shattering. Steve walked briskly out of the room afterwards, clearly not pleased despite his $1,000 consolation prize.
The second round featured a showdown between Eversole, the favorite, and Bourgeois, the reigning U.S. national champion. Bourgeois struggled, and Eversole easily took him out. Then, in the U.S. final, Eversole faced defending world champion Graig Kinzler, and knocked him off as well to advance to the championship match.
The World draw was also exciting. Marty Awatere had another great day -- the guy who didn't win a single match in Orlando a year ago got all the way to the international finals, spurred on by a thrilling overtime win against Australian national champion Danny Zivanovic. But Marty lost to Tim Glenn, the Canadian player of the year, in the World finals.
After a quick break for a smoke, the championship match began. The final was the only double elimination round of the tournament -- the champion would have to win two out of three games. The room was jam-packed -- and quieter than ever, except for occasional applause after particularly impressive shots.
Eversole was all-business, often mopping his sweaty hands and brow with the white towel he kept nearby. Glenn sipped from a beer once in a while, and fiddled with his Golden Tee glove.
Surprisingly, Eversole trailed by three strokes early in the first game. But he tied the match at 20-under heading to the 18th hole. Eversole made birdie. Glenn found the water. Game 1 went to Eversole, by a stroke.
The second game was another thriller. Glenn was down two shots coming down the stretch, but appeared to get a stroke back on No. 16 after a wonderful eagle chip-in from the rough. So what did Eversole do? Holed an ever tougher eagle chip from the bunker. The crowd erupted.
Then, on the short Par-4 18th, Eversole gambled and went for the green off the tee with a 5-wood. The ball landed on the putting surface, then rolled towards the edge of the cliff, overlooking the water ...
... and suddenly stopped short on the very last smidgeon of land.
The crowd went crazy. Eversole bowed his head for several seconds, as if in prayer to the Golden Tee gods.
"Honestly, I hit the wrong shot there," Eversole said afterwards. "I shouldn't have hit that ball with backspin. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, that shot goes in the water."
But that one was good enough for the win. The final score? 25-under to 22-under. Eversole is the world champ.
And he didn't just win the money and the title. He was presented with the Golden Tee Bomber Jacket -- a hipper version of Augusta's Green Jacket, something he can actually wear in his local bar back home. And he was automatically inducted into the Golden Tee Society, the most exclusive Golden Tee club on the planet, consisting of only a handful of members.
"I'm in absolute shock," Eversole said. "I've wanted this for so long."
But the tournament wasn't over, at least for me. Steve Sobe agreed to play 18 holes with me after the championship match. I'm a mediocre Golden Tee player -- my best round ever was probably about 6-under par. But as Steve told me, "The best way to learn is to play with a top player."
After just one hole, Steve was all over me like Tiger Woods' swing doctor. I wasn't hitting down on the trackball hard enough, which meant I was sacrificing potential power. And on my putts, I was positioning my thumbs wrong, allowing one thumb to push the ball more than the other and causing the ball to go off-line.
He also counseled me on playing the proper angles, and on club selection. "This game is physically demanding, and mentally draining," he said. "You have to make crucial decisions, but that's only half the battle. The rest is physics."
Ironically, I actually out-drove him on the first hole, which we both birdied. But a bogey on No. 2 brought me back to earth. Steve ended up shooting 20-under. I finished 19 strokes behind. But I had a rare (for me) eagle on No. 4, and two near-holes-in-one. I felt like a better Tee player already.
Then I looked around. Many of the competitors had stayed as well, and were still playing -- some for side bets, some just for fun. Even the champ was back on the links. And they were all clearly enjoying one another's company. In fact, besides meeting up at tournaments, many of them keep in touch over the phone and the internet all year long.
"I've made friends from all over North America," Ryan Bourgeois told me. "We have this common bond. We all love to play this little video game."
"We come from all walks of life," added Steve Sobe. "But this here is a brotherhood."
For a couple of days, I felt a part of it.
Now I think I always will.
You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at firstname.lastname@example.org.