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Eventually, Bob and Brian did the math. After two years on the circuit, Brian was about $30,000 in debt, spread out over eight credit cards with interest rates as high as 25%. "As much as he played," Bob says, "the interest was still more than he was putting into the machine."
The parents had no way to see this coming. The boy had grown up innocently, an only child in the northern suburbs of Chicago--only 10 miles from Arlington-based Incredible Technologies, which makes Golden Tee. In school the outgoing Barnhardt was a bit of a class clown. Out of school he was a jock. He played baseball, basketball, soccer, bowled and ran track. He played his share of Space Invaders too, but not any more than other kids. He had experimented with pot and grown a little withdrawn, but that, Bob and Madi figured, was pretty typical too.
Now the boy had tied his future to the game, and they felt they had no choice but to help him. Bob took out an equity loan to pay off the debt and worked out a plan in which Brian would make payments to him at 4% interest.
None of which meant that Brian's Golden Tee career was over. When he dropped out of school, he had decided to be a player, and he was sticking with it. Over the next year he continued to throw himself into the game, and even started to travel around the country to attend live tournaments, which can be more lucrative than the online competitions.
In March 2003 Bernhardt gave up his in-house machine because he realized his debt was getting out of hand, but he continued playing. Six months later a local Golden Tee distributor who wanted to help him qualify for Team USA gave him a new machine, but by last January he had given up that one too. By then he carried a 22under-par average, consistently drove the ball more than 300 yards and hit 83% of the greens in regulation. He'd started to win some money and had worked his way toward the top of the Golden Tee Golf Association's Gold Division, which comprises the 80 or so best players in the country.
Bernhardt no longer needed the machine in-house because he no longer needed the constant practice. He was certain that a few nights a week at the Double Inn would keep his skills sharp and that he would finally start seeing some payback for the hours he'd poured into Golden Tee. And this time he was right.
Since evicting the machine, his life has improved measurably. He's paying his bills, and each month he sends a report to his parents charting his progress. Now the game, for so long his downfall, is part of what's bringing his life back together.
In his last four live tournaments, Bernhardt has finished second, first, first and third. His crowning moment came in June, at the Players Charity Championship in Palatine, Ill., where, in front of his parents and a CBS television crew, he holed out from 59 yards on the first hole of sudden death to win for the first time. As he hoisted the $3,000 check over his head and a barroom full of people chanted his name, Bernhardt looked out at his smiling parents. He didn't sense that they were proud of him exactly, but "I think they were glad to see I finally made some money off it," he says.