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LAS VEGAS – At booth 623, comfortably situated the center of the Las Vegas Convention Center, a collection of some of Golden Tee’s finest—a lineup of trackball titans, former world champions and giants of the sport—reminded the world why this is the greatest game ever created.
The return of the Golden Tee World Championship was more than just a contest. It was a medium to hand out more than $50,000 in prizes, including a $10,000 top prize, sure. But this was something else. You could feel it.
Those in the building let it wash over them; those who streamed the matches from many miles away couldn’t help but get swept up in the madness of it all. It was beautiful, glorious tension and excitement.
The skeleton of the event was familiar: a 32-man, double-elimination bracket that would produce one champion—a world champion. Tournaments like this are run somewhat regularly these days, but not with this same amount of pressure, and certainly not in a setting as unfamiliar as this one.
And so on Wednesday, March 16, shortly after Sin City awoke after another long night, Golden Tee history was made once more.
You didn’t have to wait long to see just what it would take to make it through an event with this much talent. Minnesota’s Chris Thorbrogger bested Texas trackballer Ed Godfrey in sudden death after each player fired a -29 in their very first game. Godfrey went on to win his next match, shooting yet another -29.
Back-to-back brilliant games rewarded him with a 1-1 start. The tone was set from there.
On Day 1, many of the favorites heading into the event held serve, although none of it came easy.
Marc “The Mouth” Muklewicz, the top seed coming in, needed a -28 in his second game to take down Jeff Vordahl’s -27. Minnesota’s Andy Fox, the No. 5 seed, fired off a -29 followed by a -27 to move through the first day unscathed. Missouri golfers Paul Luna and Evan Gossett did the same—winning their first two games with quality scores.
Houston’s Mark Stenmark won an overtime match against Seth Standefer to keep his hopes intact. And Ohio golfer Andy Haas needed a miraculous late double eagle in his second-round game against Joe Massara for a come-from-behind -29 to -28 win.
Stay alive. Move on. Avoid that first loss for as long as you possibly can.
The fireworks started early, although Day 2 is where the intensity reached a constant boil. Right out of the game, Gossett bested Stenmark with a -29. One giant was tossed to the other side.
Fox, having gone to sudden death with Haas, did the same with a walk-off hole-in-one on Volcano Palms.
“When that went in, I really started to wonder if my championship hopes would be undone with one really great shot,” Haas said. “Luckily I didn't have time to stew on it too much because my next match was almost there. Also, when you lose without making a mistake, there's really no loss of confidence.”
For Haas, his loss to Fox in one of the games of the tournament was the start of a rather substantial trend. As Fox, Muklewicz, Luna and Gossett stayed unbeaten, Haas was sent to the other side of the bracket with no room for error.
At this stage of any tournament, there are no easy games. There are no gimmes. There are no games when you can assume victory of any kind. In a World Championship, the bottom half of the bracket feels remarkably cutthroat. The players are all elite—some of the best to ever play—and yet, they are all hanging on to their tournament lives. It is as gifted as it is desperate.
To keep his hopes alive, Haas needed more overtime heroics. He bested Florida’s Sean Gervais in sudden death, and piggybacked this victory with a win over Gossett -28 to -27. He then took out Muklewicz in extra holes after both players finished 18 holes tied at -27 each.
“Well, luckily two of the sudden death matches I won were on Elkhorn, and I was able to chip in on hole 1,” Haas said. “Ever since I switched to thumb chipping last year it's become one of the stronger parts of my live tourney game.”
As the beastly bottom bracket was sorted out, Luna put on an absolute showcase en route to the championship game. After firing off a -27 in his first game, Luna fired off four consecutive -29s—the last coming against Fox in the king-of-the-hill match—to secure no worse than a top-two finish.
His performance, much like his rise to the top of the Golden Tee Mountain, was machine-like. It’s like he puts his opponents in a vice and just silently squeezes until there is nothing left.
Unbeaten, Luna waited for his opponent in the finals. Having just bounced Muklewicz from the event, who finished fourth, Haas played Fox for a chance at the championship match. This time, Haas got his revenge, edging out Fox -28 to -27. Fox finished in third place.
A championship final was set. The winner of the last worlds took on a player that has risen faster than most ever have in the game’s storied history. In order for Andy to repeat, however, he would have to conquer Luna twice.
In a game that will be talked about years to come, Haas evened up with Luna in the most emphatic way imaginable. It felt like nearly everything could fall for the previous world champion.
“When I got the admittedly lucky holeout on 8,” Haas said, “that's when I really started to allow myself to think, ‘Oh man, this might actually happen.’”
Don’t just take my word for it; watch it when you have a moment. It could have very well been one of the lowest scores in tournament history. As is, Haas “settled” for a -30 to set up one final championship game.
With a spot in Golden Tee on the line, with an enormous sum of money at stake, with history hanging in the balance, the two teed it up on Antelope Pass.
Having uncorked the magic in his previous game, Haas took down Luna -27 to -25 in the final game of the tournament to win his second consecutive world championship. For his magnificent effort and showing, Luna took home $5,000.
For Haas, this win put him in rarefied air. Only two other players have won multiple Golden Tee World Championships, which is an achievement in itself. And perhaps larger than that, for those who care about such things, he stated his case as the greatest to ever play.
“It feels absolutely incredible,” Haas said. “I prepared for this tourney like I never had before, and it was gratifying to have it pay off. To have my wife and son cheering me on this time made it that much more special.”
When he was done celebrating the win with friends who traveled to watch him win another tournament—including a buddy who attended his last Vegas triumph back in 2008 in a ballroom just a few hundred feet away—he celebrated a moment with the rest of championship finalists, all of whom deserve the utmost praise for their efforts.
Finally, after he had hugged seemingly every person in the booth, Haas was taken to the side for his video-game transformation. Although he is already a playable character in Golden Tee—the last individual to receive such honors—his face in Golden Tee 2017 will now be updated.
As the booth started to clear, Haas stood still has picture after picture was taken, trying not to laugh as his friends pelted him with jokes—many of which couldn’t possibly be told here. It was celebration.
When every image was captured, after the famous Hodgson-Zielinski cup had been lifted, Haas and his collection of friends, exited the front doors of the trade show and into the Vegas night $10,000 richer.
It felt strangely normal—like they had done it before. Perhaps that’s because they had.