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At exactly 5 p.m., 24-year-old Brian Bernhardt turns off his calculator, taps the stack of invoices he's been working on into a neat pile and pushes back from the colorless cubicle he inhabits at Marsh Advantage America, a third-party insurance company in Iowa City. Jumping into his black 2000 Nissan Altima, he drives the 10 miles to the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Allison. He throws on a sweatshirt and jeans and runs his fingers through his wiry brown hair. Back in the Altima, he reaches the Double Inn bar within minutes. As he makes his way across the room he nods at the familiar faces, says "Hi" to the bartender and scoops up the Coors Light that's waiting for him on the bar. In the back corner of the room, past the pool table and near the ATM, Bernhardt finds what he's come for--Golden Tee, the 15-year-old golf arcade game that has become as
ubiquitous a part of barroom culture as big-screen TVs and bathroom graffiti.
For the next three hours Bernhardt will do nothing but spin the machine's trackball, press its buttons and feed it quarters, his only company a steady stream of Coors and Marlboro Lights. It's an indulgence he affords himself three times a week, but that's it. Bernhardt is all right now, but for more than three years Golden Tee dominated his life, dragged him deep into debt, ruined his relationships and occupied nearly all his time. "Some people like to sit down and have a beer and talk about politics," Bernhardt says. "I like to stand in front of a video game and focus on the screen. It's almost like my drug."
Bernhardt got his first taste in 2000, while working at a summer job with Cole-Parmer, an industrial-research outfit in his hometown of Vernon Hills, Ill. One day there was a company softball game, and afterward Bernhardt joined some coworkers for a few drinks. While there he spotted the machine and started to play. It was fun, it seemed harmless, and he was almost instantly good at it. Simply roll the trackball and watch the digital orb fly. Before long he was locked in a heated battle with a complete stranger, and the next thing he knew it was 4 a.m. and the bartender was making last call. Bernhardt was hooked.
That September he set off for his first semester at Iowa, to which he had transferred after two years at a community college. To make ends meet he worked two part-time jobs: at Marsh and at an Iowa City bowling alley, doing everything from disinfecting shoes to greasing the pinspotter. The bowling alley had a Golden Tee, and Bernhardt started playing as soon as his shift ended at 5 p.m.
Over time the sessions grew longer, until the only thing that stopped him was the bowling alley's closing for the night, which meant he was on the machine about six hours a day. By this point Bernhardt had tapped into the Golden Tee Golf Association, a netherworld of 300,000 devotees who compete for cash prizes, sometimes as high as $2,500, on machines that are linked online. At association tournaments you still have to pay $4, but you play only nine holes.
More games required more quarters, and Bernhardt was quickly running out of cash. Over the next year he barely ate, diverting his money to the game. He stopped paying his bills. In January 2002 he dropped out of school. "I was using money my roommates gave me for rent to play golf," he says. "I kept telling myself, 'I'm going to do good. I'm going to be like those guys out there who are making all this money.' I was like the Little Engine That Could."
All Bernhardt did was work and play the game. His biggest worry, as he saw it, was not money or his health or his future but that he couldn't find enough time to play. Finally, in September 2002, he clicked onto eBay and scrolled through the listings. He entered the bidding for a used Golden Tee machine and got it for $4,200, which he paid for by using two credit cards.
The hulking machine dominated his living room, and a phone line snaked across the ceiling to a jack in the kitchen, so Bernhardt and his credit card could stay plugged into the Golden Tee network. He was in his glory. Unhindered by game access and closing times, he was free to play in his pj's until 6 a.m.--and he often did. With extra time to experiment, his game improved as he learned new shots.
Making room for the machine forced him to reaarrange his life. He moved the TV and the couch, and said goodbye to a live-in girlfriend who grew so frustrated that she bolted to Arizona. Not all of Bernhardt's distractions were so simply pushed out of the way. When his unpaid bills began showing up at his parents' house in Vernon Hills, his mom, Madi, and his dad, Bob, paid their son a visit. Walking into his bare, messy apartment, they were shocked. The game dominated the place, if for no other reason than there was little else in it. "The place looked like a bookie's joint," says Bob.