Sunday Lunch with Larry Hodgson Inventor of Golden Tee

Sporting a Greg Norman windbreaker and the pale, slightly scruffy look known in geek circles as a "monitor tan," Larry Hodgson looks just like the software engineer and hack golfer that he is. There is little about him that screams "major technology mogul."
But Hodgson, 44, is, in fact, a pretty big deal.
The coin-operated video game he invented, Golden Tee, is the most popular such game in the world. Ever. And Hodgson, known mostly as "the Golden Tee guy," is both hero and tormentor to the more than 20 million people who play the video golf game in restaurants and bars.
A serious foodie who spent years working in restaurant kitchens before deciding that he should "grow up and take a day job," Hodgson is enjoying raw oysters and spicy tuna roll sushi at the upscale Blue Water Grill, a chic downtown spot that's a far cry from the casual hangouts that usually house Golden Tee machines. But Hodgson, a suburb-dweller who keeps a pied-a-terre in the luxury apartment building across the street, is more than comfortable here. It's the kind of place that offers a certain quiet, anonymous elegance.
'We need that other thing'
Hodgson grew up in Calumet Park, the kind of kid who people politely called "different." He spent his time doing things like dismantling a streetlight to see how it worked and stealing his sister's roller skates because he needed the parts for an invention. He was not an academic superstar.
So, yes, it worried his widowed mom that, when other kids were heading for college and careers, Larry spent his days working at his restaurant kitchen job and then coming home to play with his computer -- remember the Commodore 64? -- until all hours.
But, Hodgson says, "I think she kind of got it," when, a couple of years after he took that "day job" with Arlington Heights-based Incredible Technologies, then a small-time developer of video game software for other coin-op manufac- turers, Golden Tee hit the market.
The company is now an industry leader, with more than 100,000 Golden Tee machines in play around the world. And Hodgson, who has worked there for 19 years, has been married to company president Elaine Hodgson for seven years. He's an important part of its management team -- "My wife owns the company, so I get a lot of leeway" -- and he's working on several new projects. In overseeing the company's development group, including the programmers who make the games work and the artists who give them their look (one key difference between the two groups: artists hate fluorescent lights), Hodgson is, theoretically, doing less hands-on programming these days.
Sometimes, he says, though, he can't help himself.
"I love programming so much that I could do it constantly. It's addictive -- and you get instant gratification. You write a line of code and a character moves across the screen," he says.
And, in his heart, Hodgson says that he is still pretty much "the Golden Tee guy."
The game, Hodgson says, "is designed for you and I to sit there and play while we have a beer. It's something else to do. Especially for men, we wouldn't sit there just shooting the breeze. We need that other thing."
"If you think about classic bar games," he says, "like darts, they're not games where you have to be totally connected to it."'Not that great of a video golfer'
A self-described "bad golfer," Hodgson says he's "not that great of a video golfer, either, it turns out, which is doubly depressing."
But, as every dedicated fan of Golden Tee knows, being good at the game is not what keeps you coming back.
After Hodgson and a small team of developers created the first version of the game, he says, "we'd get together each night -- none of us were married at the time -- so we'd get together each night and play. It made memorable times out of ordinary nights. And the minute we felt that, that became our vision for the game. We wanted to do that for people. And now, when someone tells me, 'My buddies and I play,' that's the greatest compliment."
It's hard, even for Hodgson, to quantify the game's exact appeal, though. There's something about the way it lets you have a Tiger Woods-quality swing. And something about the cool, slightly surreal look of it.
It's golf, but not really.
"I'm not sure that the natural skills of golf translate," he says, "but some knowledge of the game does, like how to manage a course and manage risks."
Hodgson hasn't given up on improving his own real-life golf skills -- "it's like the Cubs," he says, "there's always next year" -- and he joined a weekly golf league at work.
"Real golf," he clarifies.

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