Lost on Track

Real-life lessons one virtual hole at a time on a Golden Tee road trip
Players play the game Golden Tee at Crystal City Sports Pub in Arlington, Va. Photo by Lexey Swall
Players “roll one” at Crystal City Sports Pub in Arlington, Va.

July 11, 2019
Charleston, South Carolina

Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

Burns Alley was about to become the second stop on my reckless adventure up the East Coast. I had my sticks in the trunk of the car, but this road trip had long since turned into a virtual-golf tour. And Burns Alley had it. Adjacent to the College of Charleston and fittingly nestled into the back side of much more charming Pottery Barn and skin-care storefronts, I walked past it twice before finding the door.

Strolling in just 12 minutes past open, I wasn’t expecting much of a crowd. I was wrong. As my eyes adjusted to the opaque interior, I made out the backsplash behind the bar covered in confiscated fake IDs, a wooden sign to my right exclaiming “JESUS LOVES BOOZE” and heard loud, drunk guys in every direction. 

Before the door could close behind me and shut out any pesky natural light, I turned left and spotted the resident Golden Tee machine that the game’s corresponding app had alerted me was nearby. When I found it, I locked eyes with a clearly intoxicated young man around my age, sporting a heavy-metal tank top, square-cut bifocals and a lime-green bandana. 

“Anyone wanna play this golf thing?” he shouted at no one in particular. 

“I do,” I immediately offered, unbeknownst to him that it was my only intention.

Greg, as it turned out, had played Golden Tee just once, never played real golf and in fact hated anything golf related. Eager to show him the light, I grabbed us drinks; he wanted a lime White Claw (to match his bandana) and I ordered a Miller Lite. Four minutes later, I returned from the bar to find him at 6 over after one hole. 

With his friends howling at his expense, I asked the group what led them to such a raucous Tuesday-afternoon bar session.

“We’re from the Bronx,” said Nick, who towered over me with a mint Grizzly dip in his cheek. “It’s our buddy Mike’s bachelor party. He’s gay. We’re all gay, actually.” 

Unsure if that was a New Yorker’s attempt at politically incorrect humor or the honest truth, I paused to survey a near-passed-out Mike on the entrance steps.

“Congrats, Mike!” I shouted in his direction.   

“Actually, half of us are gay,” said Nick. “And the other half like men.” 

When I saw one of Mike’s buddies kissing him on the neck, I believed Nick. I then asked if anyone else in their party played Golden Tee and wanted to take Greg’s place.

“Oh, I play,” piped up an older-looking fellow who introduced himself as Sean. “Every city I go, I open the app and find a machine. That’s how we got here.” 

Sean was a good Irishman like myself, a building engineer in the Big Apple and much chattier than grumpy Greg. Over the next 90 minutes, he and I disappeared into the common tongue of Golden Tee in front of Burns’ aging unit. 

We discussed his Giants season tickets, their decision to trade Odell Beckham Jr. and what the hell the Knicks were doing. We covered the cost of living in Tribeca, the difference between D.C. and NYC traffic patterns and the rebuilding of the nightlife scene in lower Manhattan post 9/11. I learned that he takes one college football and one NFL road trip a year, and the best places to play Golden Tee in each of the cities he’s been. We talked his favorite courses, his buddy Jay’s trackball wizardry back home and how dragging it toward “C” before you putt creates toe contact and helps you control the speed on slippery downhillers. 

When the conversation came up for air several lime Claws later, only three bachelors were anywhere near functional. I rejoined my designated driver and shook my boozy, befuddled head. This odyssey had just begun, and it was already proving to be even more than I expected.

I had intended to use that seemingly omnipresent cabinet tucked into the shadows of your local Cheers as merely divertissement for the impending stress and strain that would come with my uncertain passage into the post-graduate workforce. Instead, it was bordering on obsession; I felt myself steering directly into the beer belly of this trackball-rolling subculture. 

That altered path would bring me face to face with a South Carolina state trooper, to the bar in Virginia where I saw Golden Tee change a man’s life forever and to virtual courses up against two of the world’s best players.

  It all started with a fellow addict named Paul. 

Two weeks prior
Chicago, Illinois

It was 22 hours until graduation, and I was racing toward one of life’s ineluctable forks—the kind that makes you wish you had a knife. I would soon be schlepping across the stage at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, receiving a placeholder diploma for my master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and retaking my assigned seat. Requirements fulfilled, destination unknown.

To prevent my mind from wandering into the forbidden forest of jobless anxiety as my family arrived to celebrate an achievement I remained skeptical about, I dialed up one of my undefeated recipes: beer and Golden Tee. That’s how my eldest sister, Stefanie; my Golden Tee mentor, Uncle Scotty; and I arrived at Vinny’s Pizza Bar, near the West Loop of downtown Chicago, at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon.

It’s a place with a mystifying melting pot of identities one can find only in the Second City: obviously Italian, yet littered with luxurious murals of Prince and Notorious B.I.G., and scored by a “Reggae Friday” playlist the staff refuses to change—even when asked politely. But what Vinny’s lacks in linear aesthetics, it makes up for in Golden Tee machines. 

To our chagrin, the other three customers in the establishment had already commandeered the newer and nicer console. On my way to the restroom, I stopped to observe one of the more elegant, high-cut 4-woods with backspin to a front-right pin I had ever seen in my relatively short (but stellar) Golden Tee career.

“You guys play this a lot?” I asked sarcastically.

“I do,” said the man behind the 4-wood, who, I would soon learn, was named Paul. “I just got these guys into it,” he said, motioning his half-finished draft beer in the direction of two younger co-workers.

As we chatted, Paul revealed how he had been a regular on the trackball since its inaugural year, how the online version starring Peter Jacobsen had wonderfully bridged players everywhere onto a central database and how he picked up the habit in bars surrounding his alma mater of Notre Dame. 

When Uncle Scotty caught wind that the two were in South Bend at the same time, the conversation strayed to gold and blue, but it quickly returned to gold and tee. 

“Stocks and Blondes used to be our go-to spot,” Paul said, “but that left button is a little wonky. And the machine right next to the kitchen is a little iffy. Might trip a waiter.” 

The hair on my neck stood up. We had arrived at Vinny’s after a similarly disappointing stop at Stocks and Blondes. There was an instant understanding between us, the wink-nod language of those who had been in the golden trenches. 

As Paul’s threesome wrapped up on 18, I suddenly reflected on all the warm, affable and interesting people like him with whom I had collided at the controls of this game. 

“It’s a cool little community, isn’t it?” I wondered aloud. 

“Yeah, dicks don’t play Golden Tee,” Paul said. “Dicks play pool.”

Drinks in hand and my worried mind sufficiently distracted, we returned to our side of the bar for a session of our own. 

“Where should we play?” Uncle Scotty asked, eyes locked on the screen, thumbs locked in a square and scrolling counterclockwise through prospective courses.

“Everywhere,” I thought to myself. 

Savannah, Georgia

If the uncertainty of my career path wasn’t indignant enough, after graduation I had to make the demoralizing voyage back to the millennial mecca: my parents’ home.

Once unpacked, I sat on the edge of my bed and realized that not only was I unsettled long-term, but my upcoming month of July looked like the DMV: incredibly busy, with no sufficient plan to tackle it. I didn’t have an office to report to, but I had two charity golf scrambles, a wedding party, some meetings and my sister’s car to drop off—all in five different states over 12 days.

“Fuck it,” I said to myself. “Road trip.” 

Inspired by my experience at Vinny’s—and to ease the angst of itinerance—I opened the Golden Tee app (the one where I change my avatar’s outfits, adjust what’s in my bag and find the nearest games based on my location—obviously) and added promising machine locations along my route up I-95 from my parents’ place outside of Jacksonville, Florida. 

A few hours later, I instructed my former-college-roommate-turned-copilot Liam to pull over on the topside of River Street in Savannah. The strip that I remembered from earlier visits as something of a family-friendly Bourbon Street was unusually quiet during this Tuesday lunch hour. 

Much like Vinny’s, the atmosphere at Dub’s Pub wasn’t quite cohesive. It wanted desperately to be Irish, but was conflicted with saloon shutters. It served phenomenal poutine and also offered a uniquely American IPA aged on oak Mizuno baseball-bat chips to wash it away. I didn’t complain.

I punched my cardless ID into the Golden Tee machine that faced the river across 200-year-old cobblestone streets. My created player, also known as “Charles Muffins,” appeared clad in his go-to ensemble of Benjamin Franklin $100 bill shorts and Bigfoot slippers, and I chose to play at a virtual course called “Savanna Plains,” probably for OCD-related reasons. 

The plan was to roll it around until someone joined me. However, similar to many other young men in one of the bachelorette-party capitals of the world, I got distracted by a girl. Her name was Courtney, and when she wasn’t doubling as my future ex-wife in my mind, she was our waitress. 

For some reason, as shattered-baseball-bat beer flowed, I thought wooing Courtney with details of my road trip was the ticket to success. My reporter training and growing obsession quickly turned our small talk into asking her perspective on the Golden Tee regulars who frequented Dubs: What did the usual suspect look like? When did they play? Why did they keep coming back? 

“Golden Tee is for the middle-aged man who likes to extend his lunch break,” she said matter-of-factly. “Not skip, just extend.” 

Her profile rang true. I thought back to the week before, when I caught Paul on his “extended” lunch break. 

Once I learned that Courtney was a taken woman, I sadly turned back to beating my career-best score of 21 under. But when I returned to my paused game, some meddling kids were wailing away on the trackball, unbothered by the fact that they were setting fire to my handicap. Back to I-95.  

Beers, red numbers and extended follow-throughs: Stylistically, not much differs between your local pub and Golden Tee’s grandest stages when it comes to 18 virtual holes. Photo courtesy of Incredible Technologies
Beers, red numbers and extended follow-throughs: Stylistically, not much differs between your local pub and Golden Tee’s grandest stages when it comes to 18 virtual holes. Photo courtesy of Incredible Technologies

Arlington, Virginia 

I had to find a man named El Presidente. It was possible that the trips to Dub’s and Burns Alley had already warped my mind, but I didn’t care. Liam didn’t understand why, but Uncle Scotty would. 

Two years prior, when I was fresh out of undergrad, Scotty introduced me to Golden Tee on one of his “extended” lunch breaks. 

Soon after, while covering high school basketball games on scattered nights for a local news outlet, I found myself impatiently waiting until 4:30 p.m., when he would come home, drop his bag and call the 1-mile Uber to Ramparts for us to play until dinner. 

Scotty has put so much money into the Ramparts machine tucked between the kitchen and the bathrooms that one day he walked in unannounced with a power drill and a couple two-by-fours and drilled a shelf directly next to it so he didn’t have to turn to set his Miller Lite down. 

He’s put so much money in that machine that he sent the bar’s ownership an email campaigning for them to invest $4,000 in a new unit. When it arrived, the trackball began to stick, as they sometimes do. After Reggie, the local Golden Tee maintenance man (Golden Tee maintenance workers do exist, and they are as important to the Golden Tee community as your local superintendent), fine-tuned the machine to all of Scotty’s favorite settings—sound off, bright screen, jumpy trackball and no delay-of-game penalties—Scotty wrote Reggie’s boss a glowing letter of appreciation. 

I was there the night Reggie returned to Ramparts, found Scotty at his usual spot and hugged him. His boss had printed out the letter, hung it on his wall and given Reggie a $10-an-hour raise, effectively changing his life. 

Golden Tee, Photo by Lexey Swall
The infamous Golden Tee machine at Rampart’s Tavern.

One day, a foul winter windstorm wiped out the power at Ramparts, forcing us to migrate a mile down the Beltway to Crystal City Sports Pub—a much larger grill with its own barbershop and two Golden Tee machines for double-barrel action. 

Scotty swiped his player’s card and his gamer tag appeared: “Delta Bravo.” (It’s military code for “douchebag”; Uncle Scotty has a unique sense of humor.) 

“You’re Delta Bravo?!” a glistening bald man exclaimed from the machine to our right. “Dude, I see you on all the local leaderboards. You’ve got a ton of course records! You have to play with El Presidente. He’s always here.” 

El Presidente, as I would eventually learn, was a top-32 Golden Tee World Championship qualifier who flirts with an average score of 30 under—the type of lifer who has a machine at home to practice on.

In fact, the machine we were playing was technically his as well. After playing 200 $5 games a month—trying to win $10 first-place prizes in each game—Crystal City’s owner bought him a second machine to ensure he never had to wait.  

As I drove north through South Carolina, that memory triggered a firestorm in my brain, harkening all that had transpired in those two years since I first heard his name: the eight different cities I had lived in, the nine different beds and couches I had slept on and the number of times I had passed the shockingly sad “South of the Border” exit on road trips in between.  

Each time, I was chasing stories, heading toward internships and odd jobs and getting used to being told “no.” Through it all, my passion for storytelling had persevered. Once you make your mind up that a life on the sidelines will never satisfy, you’ll do pretty much anything to get in the game.

Police lights snapped me out of my lead-footed daydream. The road-trip budget did not include a 29-mph-over-the-limit stipend, but I apparently would have to make it work. I pushed on through to our nation’s capital, past the usual monuments to one of my own.

There was no one better to find a fabled regular than Crystal City’s resident barber. Within 30 seconds of asking Justin about this Golden Tee legend, I was on the phone with El Presidente. Two minutes later, he docked the boat on which he was enjoying this splendid summer afternoon and dragged his wife to meet me at Crystal City. 

Whatever preconceived notions I had of a top-tier Golden Tee player, Aidan shattered them. A handsome, 33-year-old special assistant to the assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security with a law degree from George Washington isn’t exactly what I had envisioned. 

I also never imagined anyone playing Golden Tee as he did. After he bumped and ran a 5-wood like a putt and rolled it in from 70 yards, I put my head down for 20 seconds to take notes. When I looked back up, the screen blared “HOLE IN ONE.” El Presidente played fast. 

If there was a tree I would have debated going over, he hit a low, cutting driver underneath, skipping it over the water. If there was a pitch I would’ve lofted high with some sauce, he would finagle a 7-iron onto the front edge and rattle it off the stick. It was like I had been watching a foreign film this whole time and El Presidente had just turned the subtitles on. 

When he finished, the scorecard read 29 under. It took seven minutes. 

Becoming a savant like that at anything takes time, but it also takes a passion that borders on obsession. For El Presidente, Golden Tee was meant to serve merely as a healthy distraction. Seven years ago, living in D.C. while his wife, Shannon, was in Chicago finishing her degree at Northwestern, Aidan was looking for a way to hang out with his single friends while minimizing those temptations that often infect long-distance relationships. 

So, one night, after watching some guys “roll one” on Crystal City’s then-lone machine, he gave it a shot. Fresh off a year of living in the Dominican Republic, he chose his favorite beer as his username. El Presidente was born. 

“I was addicted that first night,” he remembered. 

A few rounds turned into $1,000 a month on digital greens fees, which turned into buying his own cabinet so Shannon could see him more. Soon he was holding his newborn daughter in his left arm while dominating daily challenges with his right. 

But playing alone in a basement runs counter to the game’s central purpose, so he still frequents his home away from home. Much like the day that bald guy recognized Delta Bravo and whispered of El Presidente, usernames turn into real names, then real faces, then real friends. 

“I would say 50% of my closest friends have come from Golden Tee,” Aidan said. “It’s been such a great social outlet for me. This game is fundamentally about socializing, buying someone a beer and killing some time with friends.”

Even on the game’s biggest stage, its core social principles still apply. 

“At the national championships, guys were showing me new shots, giving me new information,” he said. “It’s not pickup basketball, where you have to guard someone. Everybody wants each other to hit good shots and enjoy themselves.”

It checked out: Every Golden Tee fanatic I’d spoken to felt a responsibility to put their arm around newcomers in hopes that their community grows just a little more. Like many real golfers, virtual players are steadfast on ensuring that their beloved game flourishes with the next generation. 

And if you’re a “banger”—someone with the skills of an El Presidente—every newcomer who becomes good enough to play for money increases the odds of quitting your day job. In his most profitable year, Andy Haas, widely recognized as the best trackball masher in the world, brought home more than $100,000 playing full-time. It’s a rare and daring profession, but with some free time and an ethernet-cable-accessible bar nearby, the online circuit can serve as a lucrative side gig. 

For the next half-hour, El Presidente stuck around and showed me the new shots taking the community by storm. Like the “shush” or “chuch”—no one could tell me how it’s officially pronounced or spelled—where a player literally nudges the trackball forward and can roll in a driver off the deck from 85 yards out. Or the “cut chip,” which negates all the guesswork of the game’s dramatically tilted greens by slam-dunking pitches into the back of the cup. 

According to him, the way to get better at video golf is the same way to improve at the real thing: Play a lot and play with people who are better than you. That’s how shortcuts on specific holes are found, loopholes in software unearthed and general knowledge transferred across the cult-like society. 

There are no books that hold these secrets, no manuals with step-by-step instructions or simple cheat codes posted in grimy chat rooms—only the original arrow mapping of the trackball around it, and the man next to you. 

In our increasingly antisocial world, I marvel at how real golf can bring people together. But now I was observing this digital entity serving as a similar vestige of the beauty of interpersonal communication. 

With the tutelage of El Presidente, I also saw the underappreciated on-course artistry in its distant, drunker cousin. It was time to drive on and apply it.

New York, New York

For a hot second, just before yet another attempt to top my career-low score, I imagined what it must have been like for Jim Zielinski and Larry Hodgson.

In 1989, they sat anxiously in a discreet corner of a dusky, now-shuttered pizza joint. It might have been Lime Rickey’s, could have been Slice of Chicago. It’s been that long, according to Zielinski. What they knew for sure is that they weren’t there for deep dish. Rather, it was to see if the countless hours of trial and error had been worth it. A few patrons approached the machine and fed it some coins, and soon the thuds of their hands and the corresponding whiz of the console echoed over small talk and silverware.

There were conflicting opinions at Incredible Technologies on whether its latest product could thrive in a traditional bar setting. Raucous matches on the beta version at the office had proven the game’s potential, but there were serious doubts as to whether it could find a profitable home in taverns nationwide at a time when arcades still reigned. 

Before those locals unwittingly became some of the first patrons ever to play what would become one of the longest-running video games of all time, Zielinski and Hodgson had intended for Golden Tee to be a full-swing simulator—the kind found in the back of your local Golf Galaxy. It was an ambitious effort for two game developers in the late 1980s, and eventually the project was scrapped due to inconsistent results at high swing speeds.

Despite the setback, Zielinski had a rota of conceptual courses mapped out, and Hodgson understood the nuts and bolts of golf simulation. After fiddling with a loaded spring arm and basic input devices for the central control, they landed on implementing their already popular Capcom Bowling trackball. Working backward motion into that forward-only mechanism broke new technical ground in the industry and proved to be so intuitive and popular that, despite the myriad changes and updates the game has undergone over the decades, its developers have never messed with the game’s now-iconic swing.

The tension dissipated on that 1989 night in the Windy City when Zielinski witnessed one of those patrons giddily high-five his buddy after hitting a digital green.

“Uh-oh,” Zielinski said, turning to Hodgson. “I think we’ve got something here.”

In that same spirit of trial, error and resourcefulness, I managed to land in New York City after a weekend golf scramble in Pennsylvania. I sent Liam off to deliver my sister’s car, hitched a couple different rides, made a detour to see Merion Golf Club’s ridiculously square tee boxes (didn’t get to play, damn it), then saddled up with a friend heading toward Long Island and spent the ride figuring out where the hell I was going to stay. 

Three days later, the miles were wearing on me, both figuratively and literally. I had barely slept the last 10 days, hadn’t seen or heard from a nutritious meal and the $8 domestic beer in Manhattan was testing my patience. 

Despite better judgment, I continued to order them at the Hairy Lemon on the city’s Lower East Side. I had been playing for a few hours at the machine tucked in a separate hideout behind the bar. An odd mix of an after-work and coed intramural Ultimate Frisbee crowd were beginning to flow in when I reluctantly inserted my last $5 bill. 

Rustic Bridge seemed like the logical course to play. Its holes are squeezed into a virtual Central Park, much like the $2,000-per-month studio closets nearby, using the city’s landmarks as defense mechanisms. It left few shot-making options for an inexperienced and half-sauced imagination such as mine. 

After a promising start, I was folding like a cheap campstool on the back. Blocked out by trees on the dogleg-right par-5 18th, I was presented with a choice to make eagle to salvage a number: a full A-1 banana peel around the corner, a 5-wood with backspin over the top of the branches or a layup straight away for a chance to hole a wedge.

I decided on the dying 5-wood and mistakenly ripped it off the pixelated tree limbs dead ahead. As my ball bounded down what I figured to be 85th Street and Park Avenue, eventually out of bounds, I took it as the Golden Tee gods saying, “Go home.” 

One month later
Winter Park, Florida

To my mild surprise, the road-trip recovery was going well: I was getting some much-needed rest at my parents’ place, and I even found some promising career stability. I thought I was finished researching this story when I met Lee on the second tee box of the Winter Park 9 outside Orlando.

He was an absolute unit of a man, with a silky putting stroke and a habit of saying things like, “You see a par 5 as a chance to make a 4; I see par 5s as a chance to fix my game.” 

Our conversation pinballed, as is often the case with larger-than-life characters, but we ultimately connected on our favorite bar game. 

Lee had just returned from Las Vegas, where he played alongside El Presidente in the Golden Tee World Championship. He was a plus-29 handicap and honed his skills at what he proudly called the hub for Golden Tee sharks in the state, just a mile from where we stood. 

Skeptical but intrigued and thirsty, I followed him there. The Miami Vice–inspired neon sign shouting “Spatz” was both excessive and enchanting.

The windows to this single-level cinder-block establishment were blacked out and the front door camouflaged as an inconspicuous beige slab. Inside, cigarette smoke supplanted oxygen, and through the secondhand haze I was stunned as four Golden Tee machines emerged, lining the walls to the right of the bar, with another sitting idly around the bend. 

It was nearly a 1:2 machine-to-person ratio—unheard of in my dive-bar travels. 

Lee and I put in a quality shift as he explained how all the best players in the world stop here when traveling through, how his group of diehards had boycotted their previous hideout due to the owners jacking up prices on single games and that Webb Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori, owned the course record on the machine closest to the billiards table. 

He elucidated why Haas is better than the best, broke down the seedy underground world of cash side bets and went on about how he got behind the 18th green at Pinehurst when Payne triumphed in ’92. 

He proudly boasted how his son had just made the freshman golf team, broke down how the Power Events Golden Tee Tour points work and declared he’s no fan of the “shush.” Or “chuch.” Not even Lee knew what to call it. 

I laughed, tore through the underrated chicken strips, drank way too many black cherry White Claws and learned a little bit more about the people we pass on the streets and tee boxes daily.

Without the common thread of Golden Tee to pull us together, Lee and I would’ve parted ways at Winter Park, letting life take us down our separate paths. Instead, it brought us to Spatz, to remind me that the world is a lot smaller than I think, with a night I barely remember but will never forget. 

Silly me for thinking that my road trip was over, or even confined to that 12-day window. 

No—Paul, Uncle Scotty, Courtney, grumpy Greg, Sean, Mike the passed-out bachelor, that bald guy, Reggie the maintenance man, El Presidente and now Lee had shown me that my journey began a long time ago, and will continue for as long as I do.