Golden Tee World Championship
The craziest things I saw, heard and learned at the Golden Tee World Championship
Richard R King
Evan Gossett is wanted on the first tee. So he grabs his bucket of black cherry White Claws and makes his way there. It’s a strange sight seeing a competitor at a professional sporting event do such a thing, until you remember that this professional sporting event is the Golden Tee World Championship.
Outside the Notoriety Club in Downtown Las Vegas, it’s 115 degrees and nothing about it is a “dry heat” as every dad in America likes to claim. Inside, the air conditioning is pumping but the action is just as hot. Over a weekend in mid-July, hundreds of middle-aged dudes and a very small handful of women come in and out of the dimly-lit club to watch or compete in this unique event. And to drink. A lot.
Gossett heading to the first hole, also known as one of the 25 Golden Machines on hand for the event, with White Claws in tow was one of the many wild things I saw from my three-day trip to Sin City for this video game tournament. Everything else I saw, heard and learned from the Golden Tee Championship is described in great detail below.
- I arrived Friday night and was informed that I’d have a chance to qualify for the World Championship. The qualifier was a closest-to-the-pin, double-elimination contest in which you play nine holes, all par 3s. At the end of the nine holes, the player with the lowest cumulative total of feet to the hole wins. I informed my first opponent that I had no idea what I was doing, to which he replied “Ha, me too!” It took him about five holes to realize I truly had no clue, at which point I told him I was here covering the event for Golf Digest. His tone changed quickly, as he then became my coach instead of my opponent. It didn’t help - I never hit a single green in either of my matches.
- Friday night qualifying was truly a scene. There were originally just six spots up for grabs that night, but a seventh became available when one competitor dropped out with COVID. “That would spread through here,” said Joshua Pick, VP of Sales at Incredible Technologies (the manufacturer of the Golden Tee video game). He’s right. It’s a sea of sweaty men who are all boozing, vaping, burping, coughing, yelling, laughing, etc. Friday night was much more of a social event than it was a competition.
- Saturday couldn’t have looked and felt more different. While there’s still plenty of drinking going on, it’s clear that it’s time to get down to business. You could hear a pin drop up on the main stage, where three of the 25 Golden Machines sit with lights and cameras attached to them for a live stream. This is where the field’s biggest stars will compete throughout the weekend, while the rest of the competitors will attempt to earn the right to be on that stage by Sunday on the other 22 machines all situated in a room a few steps from the main stage.
- One of the top players, Marc “the Mouth” Muklewicz, was introduced to me on Friday night. His nickname is “The Mouth” (“Word of Mouth” is his Golden Tee name) because, as you may have guessed, he’s a talker. “I’m shy,” he jokes to me while doing the left hand over right hand two-hand handshake to assert his dominance. He’s clearly THE character at these events, constantly moseying around in his thong-toed flip flops and cargo shorts, ordering Sprites, chatting up whoever will listen, and complaining about whatever glitch in the game had screwed him in his most recent match. I soon learned he’s had multiple “blow-ups” at past Golden Tee events before, and that his short fuse has often cost him chances to win. One year, he even accused his opponent of having too much lotion on his hands, which was messing up the trackball. True story.
- There is a group of women sitting in a circle throughout the weekend who call themselves the “Golden Tee Widows.” No, their husbands did not die, they are just Golden Tee professionals. I spoke to the wife of Graig Kinzler on Friday night. He’s a two-time world champ who was actually a former PGA teaching professional. Kinzler played golf against Kevin Streelman in high school, and they still keep in touch to this day. “Streels made it in the real golf world,” Kinzler’s wife says. “Graig in the virtual world.”
- It took two trucks to get all 25 Golden Tee Machines into the building, and they had to come up on an elevator. Reminder: the temperatures were record-setting that weekend in Vegas. Prayers up for whoever’s job it was to get those machines off the truck and onto the elevator one by one. The machine itself costs $5,000, and with the TV it’s $6,200. The highest-end version can be found online for around $6,600.
- Paul Luna, the defending champion who made it all the way back to the final four but came up just short in 2023, was “mentored” by fellow Golden Tee pro Mark Stenmark, Pick tells me. Mentored! For a video game! What a country.
- Pick also mentions that each year, they always “lose” somebody, which is just about the most Las Vegas thing you could possibly hear. One year, one of the competitors woke up on a park bench with a bag of FAKE crack in his hands. The cops couldn’t even arrest him because it was fake. He wound up finishing in the top 10.
-A very normal sight at the Golden Tee Worlds - competitors carrying around towels in their pockets to wipe down the trackball between shots. Between the sweat, the condensation from whatever drink they’re drinking, or, as Muklewicz contended, hand lotion, that trackball can get pretty grimey. With $25,000 to the winner on the line, you can’t really leave anything up to chance. Pausing the game and giving the ball a good wipedown is no different from a tour pro having his caddie dry off his grip with a towel before a crucial shot.
- Speaking of hilarious comparisons to tour pros, these guys talk like tour pros, too. Eddie Godfrey, who finished in second place, was interviewed after the round and asked about the new chipping wedge he was using late in the final round. “Yeah, I put that in the bag a few weeks ago and it’s really worked for me,” Godfrey said. Reminder: we’re talking about a video game. But hey, for these guys, it’s much more than that, it’s a way to make a living. Still hilarious to hear Godfrey say he “put it in the bag” a few weeks ago like he was Phil Mickelson putting in a new wedge to prep for a tournament down the line.
- The biggest thing you notice with these guys is the ease with which many of them flick the trackball. While the rest of us are slamming that thing at full force in bars across America and shooting 22 over, these guys are lightly flicking their way around in 27 under. Gossett literally just uses his two thumbs for many shots. Some guys do still thump it, and shots that require curve do need some extra power, but for the most part these guys make it look far easier than it actually is, sort of like tour professionals in real golf.
- Putting is almost completely irrelevant, unless it’s from very long distance. Often, you’ll see three competitors playing on one machine all hit their approach shots to 10 or 15 feet, and whoever hit last will putt out for everyone to keep the pace moving. The object of the game at the highest level is to try and hole out approach shots. The guy who is able to do that once or twice a round has the leg up. The matches often come down to those one or two shots. As the weekend wears on, however, the longer putts do matter, as Andy Haas came to find out on the final hole of a match against Paul Luna:
- Saturday evening, after all of the Day 1 matches were over, Luna attempted a “speed round.” He shot 25 under in six minutes, and he did so by purposely hitting it farther from the hole on his approach shots. Why? Because the closer you hit it, the more “great shot” points you get, which stalls the game. Closer approach shots also lead to replays of the shot, which you can fast forward through but still take off precious seconds. Luna has played this particular course so many times that he knows exactly where to place each and every shot to shoot as low as possible as fast as possible. It was more impressive than watching those nerds solve a Rubik’s Cube in three seconds.
- As Pick tells me, many of the pros hone their skills at bars across the country. At bars with three machines, pros will often play all three machines at once, jumping from machine to machine like they are playing three hands of Blackjack at once.
- There is one female who advanced to the weekend - Jamie Arrington, who wears a shirt with the phrase “PayTheGirl” written on it (also her Golden Tee name). She’s highly outnumbered but she’s got plenty of game, nearly advancing to the championship bracket on Sunday but coming up two strokes short. Her husband originally introduced her to the game and she ended up getting so good at it that she’s now better than him and competing on the world stage. Knowing she’d likely make it to the main stage at some point on the weekend and knowing how camera-shy she is, she began filming her and her husband playing the game at home so she’d get used to being on a livestream.
- Livestream, you say? Yes, there is a full, nine-hour plus livestream for both tournament days, complete with two commentators named Chad Schrump and Chris Longino, who booze the entire time and call it like real golf (quietly) while also mixing in plenty of humor. I checked in on it here and there throughout the weekend and it’s honestly a hilarious watch. If you’re ever looking for on-demand, background television on a slow sports weekend, I’d highly recommend it.
- The intensity on Sunday was major-championship level. The crowd was legitimately five rows deep:
All of the fans on hand were engaged in their own competition - a drinking one. I’ve never seen so many beers, Jack and cokes, and spiked seltzers consumed without someone literally going down or making an absolute ass of themselves. There was nothing of the like here. These people, the competitors included, are all veteran alcohol-consumers, many of them going directly out on the town after play ended while this 30-year-old writer couldn’t possibly get to bed fast enough. I hope to one day gain day-drinking energy in my old age like these folks seemingly have.
- The winner’s interview with Paul Tayloe went … exactly how you’d expect a winner’s interview to go with a Golden Tee World Championship:
Couldn’t think of a better way to put a bow on one of the wildest sporting events I’ve ever covered.