Green Monster

Jeff Harlow is St. Louis' best golfer. Indoors, that is.

Jeff Harlow's second job is a macho moonlighter's dream. A bagel baker by day, come nightfall the stocky, 28-year-old Florissant resident morphs into an elite professional golfer -- the caveat being that he hits all his sand wedges indoors and within arm's length of several bottles of Beefeater and a tonic gun.

When it comes to the traditional outdoor links, Harlow confesses that he "sucks." But at the Grappa Grill on a Tuesday night, in a threesome rounded out by Jimmy Parker and Matt Van Hoosier, he's busy practicing the famed "Harlow swerve" that makes him the St. Louis area's best video golfer.

Harlow finished 48th in the Golden Tee nationals in Las Vegas in April and will compete in a Chicago-area tournament during the weekend of October 18 for an all-expenses-paid (by Chicago-based Golden Tee manufacturer Incredible Technologies) trip to the November 16 Golden Tee "Ryder Cup" in Orlando. Competitors in that tourney receive a guaranteed $1,000 and a chance to win $15,000 more should they topple their international rivals. "The guys say I make love to the ball," says Harlow, demonstrating his open-palmed approach on one of the St. Charles establishment's two Golden Tee machines.

Next up in the virtual tee box -- where players spin a white, rolling "track ball" that determines the force and direction of their shots -- is Van Hoosier. Surveying a par four on Blue Horizon, one of the game's fictitious courses, Van Hoosier bounces a driver off an island green and into the blue cartoon drink. Harlow and Parker proceed to razz their weekly playing partner, a scene not likely to ensue during a Professional Golfers' Association telecast.

"If you're not talking shit, you should be playing Pac-Man," says Harlow.

Ah, Pac-Man -- for years regarded as the undisputed king of coin-op. Well, no more -- Golden Tee, introduced to taverns nationwide in 1989, now lays claim to the title of the most lucrative coin-operated arcade game ever. Of course, it helps that a round of GT costs $4 per player versus a mere quarter for its dot-gobbling rival, but GT's imprint on the industry has been epic.

One crucial difference between Pac-Man and Golden Tee: money. With Pac-Man, players contented themselves with the satisfaction of a round well-gobbled. Golden Tee, however, shares its wealth, doling out some $225,000 monthly to players who compete against each other on a nationwide network of machines like the ones at the Grappa. Of this legion of Tee-heads, 400,000 carry a "Gold Card" that allows them to monitor their scores, cash winnings and expenses online.

Such fiscal monitoring comes in handy when the IRS is involved. Harlow, who has netted $10,000 in prize money so far this year, writes off the money he spends on GT at the Grappa as "practice rounds."

"They have done a great job of creating a market," says Caryn Mical, vice president of marketing for San Jose-based Global VR, which last year launched a rival arcade golf game in partnership with industry giant EA Sports and the PGA Tour.

While the upstart PGA game allows players to slip into the skin of real pros like Jesper Parnevik and play facsimiles of real courses like Pebble Beach, the game's functions are uncannily similar to Golden Tee, which boasts 100,000 machines in taverns nationwide -- 400 in the St. Louis area alone. The PGA game can't come anywhere near such totals, but even Golden Tee loyalists like Parker acknowledge that the new game, with superior graphics and higher first prizes ($5,000 versus a $2,500 top prize in Golden Tee) may soon land its less flashy predecessor in the deep rough.

Gary Colabuono, marketing director for Incredible Technologies, says he welcomes competition. But copycats are a different story -- in February Incredible Technologies filed a copyright infringement-suit in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking that Global VR be banned from selling its game until substantive changes are made. A ruling in the case is believed to be imminent.

"It's absolute horseshit," Colabuono says of claims that Golden Tee's new rival might render his green monster obsolete. "I hate to say it's all copycat stuff, but that's what it is. Everyone's tried coin-operated golf games, and they're all gone. We expect [the EA] game to be gone, too.

"To say they're going to upstage a game responsible for $1.2 billion per year is ridiculous," Colabuono continues. "Players are going to spend $400 million in the next twelve months in game fees and $800 million in food and beverage. This game has saved the coin-operated amusement industry."

That's a lofty (and debatable) claim, but Grappa Grill co-owner Terry Jones oozes nothing but congratulatory butter when asked what the game has done for his commerce.

"When people are playing a lot of Golden Tee, the ATM use goes up," says Jones of his in-house automated teller, from which the restaurant draws a small convenience charge per transaction. "It's a classic example of one source creating a new source of revenue. If they're gonna play another round of Golden Tee, they're gonna buy another round of beers."

"Golden Tee provides men with three of the four male necessities of life: a reason to get out of the house and hang with their buddies, a reason to compete and a reason to drink beer," proclaims Colabuono. "They can get their sex at home."

For players like Harlow and Parker, that fourth necessity might get a boost, as well.

"Our wives complain until the checks start rolling in," says Parker, as Harlow preps his tee shot on Blue Horizon's final hole, a par three.

Fittingly, Harlow, a man who spends his day creating one-hole edibles, drains a hole-in-one.

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