ST. PETERS • The golf ball soared into a pixel-blue sky before landing within feet of the hole — an easy putt.
Evan Gossett’s tournament standing climbed with each shot — 12 under par, then 17, 20 and 22 — until finally he took first place with a minus 25, defeating 49 opponents scattered across the country.
The game took less than 10 minutes, with a flurry of trackball spinning and button thumping.
When it was over, Gossett had another $10.
The 30-year-old from St. Peters would repeat the process a few dozen more times that day under the fluorescent light of an office outfitted for devotees of an arcade game: Golden Tee Golf.
Gossett was surrounded by a half-dozen Golden Tee games and players in a room located in the back of a St. Peters strip mall.
But even among the aficionados, Gossett stood out.
For them the game is a hobby; for him, it’s a livelihood.
Before you laugh, Gossett estimates that he makes between $45,000 and $55,000 a year, competing in tournaments over the Internet. He said he plays for about five hours each day.
“It beats having to report to a boss,” he said.
This weekend, Gossett, who “turned pro” in 2009, will have the opportunity to earn more money as he travels to Houston to the Golden Tee national championship, where he could make as much as $6,000.
Golden Tee — a popular bar game — is one of a handful of arcade games to host tournaments worth thousands of dollars. The games are quickly becoming big-money events, attracting players from all over the country and, in some cases, the world.
In addition to the paydays, winners garner bragging rights — the claim to be among the best in the world at something.
HUNTING FOR CASH
In October, more than 64 players faced off at the Big Buck Hunter championships in Chicago, including three from the St. Louis area: Derek Tower, 32, Mike Ridings, 37, and Alyssa Friedman, 25.
First prize for the simulated hunting game was $15,000.
None won big, but they each left with game cards loaded up with a few hundred dollars worth of credits. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to allow them to play for free for a few months.
“There are only 64 of these in the world,” said Tower, as he held up his card on a recent Sunday at Mr. Lucky’s Restaurant and Lounge in St. Peters.
In what’s become a Sunday ritual, the trio gather at Mr. Lucky’s in front of the game, sandwiched between a popcorn machine and an old Ringling Brothers poster.
They play for as many as 11 hours at a stretch.
The bar also “sponsors” them. Asked what that means, Tower said they get free beer and shots of Fireball Whisky — seemingly a favorite of Big Buck Hunter players everywhere. “This game is all about having a cocktail with it,” Tower said.
Ridings, a former college wrestling coach turned union carpenter, said the game satisfies his competitive urges.
At the world championship, Ridings placed 44th. He said he was proud of the accomplishment, but “at the same time, that competitive edge in me says it’s ‘first or nothing.’”
Last year’s Big Buck Hunter world champion, Chris Fream, 30, of Minneapolis, said he used the $15,000 in prize money to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring.
“If she gives me any grief about playing video games,” he said, “I can just point to her ring.”
ANOTHER GAMING MARRIAGE
Before he was a professional Golden Tee player, Gossett was a bartender. But after a couple of years of playing the game, he discovered he could make more money with online Golden Tee tournaments. So most days, he competes in virtual 50-person tournaments with players putting $1 in a prize pool.
First prize in the live tournaments is $10, with the rest of the pooled money being distributed among the top 20 players.
By playing 60 or so games, Gossett can easily make a few hundred dollars a day.
It’s similar to online poker, but without as much need for luck. Gossett currently ranks fourth in the country.
Like most enthusiasts, he said the game is not only about the money and competition, but also the community that has evolved around it.
In fact, that’s how Gossett met his wife.
Back in 2008, Incredible Technologies, the Vernon Hills, Ill.-based company that makes Golden Tee, stopped sponsoring a national championship event for the game.
Paige Gossett, along with two business partners, Steve Sobel and Russ Layton, saw an opportunity in that absence.
The trio — all from the St. Louis area — founded Power Events in 2009.
The company organizes tournaments every two months in cities across the country.
Evan Gossett, a native of Vancouver, Wash., met Paige at a tournament in St. Louis roughly four years ago. The couple started dating in 2011, eventually prompting Evan to relocate to St. Louis. They were married in September.
Paige Gossett, 32, said her friends laugh when she tells them her husband is a professional Golden Tee player.
“Then I explain it some more, and they get jealous,” she said.
In October, Power Events opened a public arcade in a St. Peters strip mall devoted solely to Golden Tee. It gives players a more comfortable place to play. So now, Gossett no longer has to spend hours playing in a bar — or worry about wing sauce getting spilled on the trackball.
Gossett’s mom, Mary, said she and his father often watch his tournaments as they are streamed live.
“The fact that you get to do something you love is a dream of everyone,” she said. “Could you ask for anything more for child? I don’t think so.”