FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: ‘Golden Tee,’ the bar video game, is an ace with golfers

Blue Hills Sports Grille bartender Claire Beshears and manager Scott Leary of Milton enjoy playing Golden Tee. (LISA BUL/The Patriot Ledger)
By DINA GERDEMANThe Patriot Ledger
The golf courses won’t thaw for a few more months, so Mike Smith is practicing his swing in a bar. Well, sort of. Smith is playing Golden Tee Live, the ridiculously popular golf video game that has scores of bar-goers hooked with the hope of sinking a hole-in-one - especially during the cabin-fever winter months when real golf isn’t an option.
‘‘I’m a golf fanatic, so in the summer, I play real golf. But in the winter I play Golden Tee three or four days a week,’’ said Smith, who lives in Weymouth. ‘‘It gives me my fix of golf during the off-season.’’
An estimated 10 million people worldwide are playing Golden Tee, spending about $350 million on the game in the last year alone, making it the most successful video game now and maybe even ever.
‘‘We think it’s the most successful video game in history,’’ said Gary Colabuono, marketing director for Incredible Technologies, the Illinois-based company that created Golden Tee. ‘‘We make these claims without firm facts of any kind,’’ he said light-heartedly, ‘‘but it would be hard to dispute. No one in our industry has disputed it.’’
We’re not talking about casual coin-dropping arcade hangout types here. We’re talking serious players, guys who long ago graduated from the simplicity of Ms. Pac-Man and now find themselves drawn to this more sophisticated game for adults night after night after night.
‘‘I have guys who come in almost every day for an hour or two to play it,’’ said Scott Leary, manager of Blue Hills Sports Grille in Canton. ‘‘It’s the only reason they come here. These guys are diehards.’’
‘‘Guys love it. It’s the best bar game to come along since Pac-Man,’’ agreed Tom Powers, owner of Union Brew House in Weymouth. ‘‘People are playing it all the time. On weekend nights it’s nonstop.’’
The video game, which includes a wireless version that allows you to play with other golfers in other bars around the country, is amazingly simple. You use the palm of your hand to manipulate a ball. You’re watching a golfer on a video screen in front of you, and when you move the ball toward you, your video guy pulls the golf club back, and when you push the ball forward, your guy swings the club and hits the golf ball on the screen.
But this game is obviously about more than making a birdie. Playing Golden Tee allows for the same kind of social camaraderie that comes from shooting pool in a bar, Colabuono said. You drink, you chat, you take a shot, you watch your buddy take a shot and you try to outscore each other.
Unlike some other video games, you’re not in your own world, unable to talk to anyone because you’ve got your finger on a trigger and your eyes glued to a screen.
‘‘It’s not all-engrossing,’’ Colabuono said. ‘‘It’s not like you’re in a race car so that if you lose concentration for a second, you’ll blow up. Men go to a bar for two reasons, to see their friends and socialize and to drink and see pretty girls come in. This game lets them be social.’’
Other gory shoot-em-up video games tend to attract a younger audience - kids and teens - while Golden Tee is designed for an older, more mellowed-out video game player.
‘‘Kids want action,’’ said longtime player Paul English, 37, of Randolph. ‘‘They want to kill something.
‘‘We played video games all the time when we were teenagers,’’ he said. ‘‘We’d go to the beach in Hull, sit on the wall, go into the arcade and play video games all day - Defender, Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders. This is a video game for us now.’’
The game, which costs $4 for 18 holes and accepts both cash and credit cards, started in 1989 as a much more rudimentary version than the ones you’ll find in bars today. Players rave about the graphics in the current models: squirrels crawling around, airplanes flying overhead and leaves rustling in the breeze.
The latest version, Golden Tee Live, debuted in April 2005 as the first coin-operated amusement game to use wireless technology in its game play.
A player can feed the game an extra dollar to compete against 49 other players from around the world. A player in Quincy, for instance, can play a real-time game with players in Chicago, Toronto and London. Players who finish in the top 20 get some money back, anywhere from $1 to $10, depending on their placement.
And players who get really good can compete in Golden Tee tournaments, including a world championship with a $57,000 purse, which pits 16 United States players against 16 players from other countries, including Canada, England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
As players get better and better at the game, the competition can get intense. Powers is hooked on the game himself, playing daily against his chef, Dennis Smith of Hanover.
‘‘Dennis and I compete like dogs on this game every day,’’ he said. ‘‘And I’m not even a golfer. You want to be the best. It’s all about bragging rights. And it’s absolutely addictive.’’
Powers welcomed his first Golden Tee game into his bar in the late 1990s after noticing that a lot of his customers - and even staff members - were bellying up to a different bar down the street.
‘‘I had to see what was going on, and I found out they were going there to play a Golden Tee game, so I had to get one myself,’’ he said.
And sure enough, the game began drawing new customers.
‘‘It’s been great for business,’’ Powers said. ‘‘There are a lot of guys who come here just because we have it.’’
Paul English is one of them. He started going to Union Brew House with a friend after finding out online that the bar had the game.
‘‘We seek out places that have the game,’’ he said. ‘‘If we go into a place to have a beer after work and it doesn’t have the game, we go somewhere else. It’s more fun than just sitting there. It’s something to do.’’
Besides, Mike Smith said, ‘‘It’s a guy thing.’’
He’s not kidding. Men outnumber women players about nine to one, Colabuono said. Some women say they don’t exactly get what all the fuss is about.
‘‘Me, it’s not my thing,’’ said Paul English’s wife, Laurie. ‘‘All of Paul’s guy friends, that’s all they do is play video games. It’s a big kid kind of thing.’’
Although men are clearly more into the game than women, bar owners say they do see women joining in.
‘‘It’s popular with both men and women. It’s the only video game we’ve had where we’ve had such a cross-section of people using it,’’ said Alex Drosos, owner of the Venus Cafe in Whitman. ‘‘I have this one couple who comes in a lot. She’s getting really good, and he’s staying about the same, so he gets really aggravated.’’
Not much different than a golfer feels on a real course on a tough day. About 80 percent of Golden Tee players tee off for real.
‘‘Golden Tee allows a bad golfer to play good golf,’’ said Jim Zielinski, senior game designer with Incredible Technologies. ‘‘That’s the draw, the fantasy.’’
Even during the summer months, when golf courses are wide open, Golden Tee is hopping.
‘‘During the summer, a lot of golfers will come in straight from the golf course to play,’’ Drosos said. ‘‘Probably because you do better on this game than you do in real life.’’
Drosos has gotten pretty good himself. A couple years ago he competed in a tournament and won $50.
‘‘I usually play late at night when no one is here after I close the place and clean up,’’ he said.
Mike Smith, who doesn’t care for other video games, hasn’t grown tired of this one even after several years of playing regularly. He said he spends about $40 a week on the game. So which game earns him a better score: real golf or Golden Tee?
‘‘I’m not too good at either one,’’ Smith, 54, admitted. ‘‘The difference is in real golf, my age shows, but not with Golden Tee.’’

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