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Meet the guy who makes $50,000/year playing video golf in bars

If you’ve been to a bar in the past ten years or so, you’ll have noticed the online golf games that tempt you to try to play and win against people around the country. They promise real cash prizes, but who actually wins those things? This guy. 

Graig Kinzler is a two-time world champion. But like a lot of other Americans, he isn’t feeling as secure as he used to. His earnings are down, the competition is stiffer and Mr. Kinzler—a bearded 33-year-old with a wife and nine-month-old son at home—fears losing his edge.

“I worry I’m getting the yips,” he said recently, referring to the anxiety that sometimes ruins golfers’ games.

On a typical workday, Mr. Kinzler takes care of his son, Brady, until midafternoon, when a nanny comes to relieve him. His wife, Cortney, works as a sales rep for a vending-machine company.

Mr. Kinzler then rides his bike about a mile to Six Degrees, a bar in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago. He greets the bartender and heads to the back corner, where he swipes a card that keeps track of his earnings. For the next five hours, he stands in front of a console with seven buttons, a white track ball the size of a baseball and a giant, high-definition screen. He will play 30 games and suck down a couple of high-octane energy drinks. Several years ago, Mr. Kinzler, who studied professional golf management in college and was a qualified teaching pro, let his certification lapse so he could devote his time to Golden Tee.

It takes him about eight minutes to play 18 holes. His hands skip over the control buttons. Then, with a pause and a snap of the wrist, he spins the trackball at the center of the console and his avatar smacks a ball into play.

It is his ability to consistently spin the track ball at just the right speed and angle to control his avatar’s swing and the golf ball’s flight that sets him apart from the tens of thousands of other Golden Tee competitors. New players have a hard time even laying the ball on the green let alone dropping it with back spin a few feet from the cup.

Golden Tee was developed in 1989 by Incredible Technologies in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. In 1995, the company networked the games through phone lines to enable players in different locations to compete. In 2000, it introduced cash prizes, causing the number of consoles to jump to 30,000, from 4,000, in two years, according to Scott Morrison, company spokesman.

Because Golden Tee is a skill-based game, it gets around gambling restrictions in all but four states.

There are now about 60,000 Golden Tee games in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia, frequented by players with screen names like “Suq It,” “Six Foot Stank” and “Git Sum.” The highest concentration of games is in the Midwest.

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