Video golf king to defend Golden Tee title in championship

Video golf king to defend Golden Tee title in championship

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Spinning that little track ball on video golf is all about the thumbs and wrists, so it’s not a shock that Andy Haas has developed a touch of carpel tunnel syndrome from doing it all these years.

For most of his adult life, Haas has been living the dream of many — making a pile of money playing a video game. That was his job. Going to bars and banging away at an arcade machine called Golden Tee that’s been around since Tiger Woods was in middle school. In his best year, he brought home over $100,000.

But now Haas, who is 35 and lives near Cleveland, is trying to play less video golf and focus more on his full-time gig selling insurance. But that won’t keep him from trying to defend his title at the Golden Tee World Championship later this month.

Being married with a nearly 2-year-old son isn’t conducive to hanging out at the chicken-wing place perfecting his virtual chip and putt. A few years ago, he got a real job and has cut back on his time in front of the machine.

He still plays a few hours nightly, but tries to get home in time to put little AJ to bed.

“I want something more stable and traditional,” he said. “I don’t know how long Golden Tee is going to be around.”

The machine already has beaten the odds by staying relevant in an era of sophisticated home video gaming. The coin-operated Golden Tee became ubiquitous in drinking establishments soon after it came out in 1989. In the early 2000s, technology allowed players to compete with each other for prize money on machines linked by phone lines. Since 2005, players in the U.S. and Canada have been connected by the internet, which makes it possible for them to win money from each other in real time every day.

And that’s what Haas did.

For years after he graduated from college in 2004, he supported himself on the virtual links, playing eight hours a day, five days a week.

“I made as much as I played,” he said. “So I had to be motivated to go in and do it every day. Some days it became a grind. The glory days of real sports competition were over for me a long time ago, so it allows me a kind of competitive outlet that I still enjoy. That’s what kept me interested in it for long.”

Haas still is the best player on the planet and will be in Las Vegas on May 19 for the world championship. The top 64 players who qualify on local machines will gather for a weekend of non-stop track-ball action at Hi Scores Bar Arcade on the Strip. First prize is $10,000.

“It’s an unbelievable thing to watch these guys play,” said Adam Kramer, with Incredible Technologies, maker of Golden Tee machines. “The level of skill, it really changes your perspective when you watch guys like Andy who plays so fast, who have seen every shot, who have been in every situation.”

These days, Golden Tee costs $5 a play and has a credit-card slot. Frequent players like Haas negotiate a lower price with vendors and end up paying around $3 per game. Haas hardly ever eats when he plays. Wing sauce makes the track ball slippery.

His wife, Ann, said it didn’t take her long after they met to realize Andy was a normal man, despite his unconventional calling.

“This isn’t some guy who lives in his mom’s basement and plays games for 36 hours straight,” she said. “He has to play in public, he has a social life, his family loves it and is very supportive of it, so that reassured me.”

Haas plans to keep his hand in Golden Tee and keep making money from it as long as the machines are still around, even if he has to keep icing down his right arm afterward.

“Banging on it for as many years as I have, my hand and wrist and elbow are pretty sore pretty regularly,” he said. “It does take a toll on you.”

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Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy

Mitch Stacy, The Associated Press

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