The sweet-swinging avatars of the World Golf Tour

The hours will pass pleasantly, however, for this free, high-definition and addictive online game puts your golfing avatar on great courses, including Bethpage Black in New York, the Ocean Course at South Carolina's Kiawah Island and, among others, Edgewood Tahoe. Thanks to WGT partnerships with the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient, players can also compete in "virtual majors" on the same courses used in real life, including this year's Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews; the U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont; and, in a special event held at Pebble Beach.

While anyone can enter WGT events and win cash and other prizes - - last year's virtual U.S. Open winner won a trip to this year's real tournament - - players with pro-quality gaming skills and perhaps an obsessive-compulsive diagnosis dominate leader-boards. Drives, fairway irons, bunker shots and putts are all influenced by the timing of a "swing," the shot's lie, elevation changes, wind and green speeds that are built into each virtual course. To excel takes nearly as much work, practice and talent as earning a living on the PGA Tour. It's all part of the beautiful accuracy of the game created by the San Francisco-based World Golf Tour, Inc.

More than one million players from about 180 countries have signed on as members since its launch in October of 2008, says Lincoln Silver, the firm's marketing vice president. Most aren't hard-core gamers, blasting aliens on Halo and humans on Call of Duty. The WGT doesn't even require a game box, just a computer, which facilitates both marketing and participation.

"We tend to get primarily men between the ages of 20 and 50, with 35-to-40 being the sweet spot," explains Silver. While that's a little older than typical gamers, the younger demographic represents potential. Virtual golf, in fact, may be the fastest growing segment of a sport struggling to re-engage former players and attract new ones. The USGA and the Royal & Ancient hope that exposure to realistic versions of a championship and exclusive courses will whet an interest in both watching and playing the real thing. "Not everyone can afford to get over to Scotland and play the Old Course, or buy a ticket to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this summer," adds Silver. "The game also gives players an idea of all the factors that go into the shots that the professionals make."

Indeed, these game-markers take hundreds of thousands of photos and laser measurements in developing a virtual course, and boast of topographical accuracy to within 1 and ½ inches. I believe them, especially after playing Pebble Beach during the USGA's media day in early May, and a special WGT Pebble Beach challenge that will soon be featured on the website. Here your avatar attempts to duplicate shots taken during the four previous Opens held at Pebble, in 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2000, including a putt on the 16th green.

In real life, our caddie insisted we account for a severe break that wasn't obvious; the WGT recreation, which features a grid that indicates sloping surfaces, showed exactly the same thing.

Although the game is free, the WGT counts upon the competitive nature of gamers and golfers, which compels free spending. An on-line "pro shop" offers clubs that provide 10 to 20 more yards of distance than the standard and free issue, balls with more spin and other useful items for between $10 and $20. For a price you can also field an avatar that's better dressed and better looking than the basic model. Along with sponsorships by the same corporations that back real tournaments, it's how the WGT makes earnings.

One catch is that to become eligible to buy better clubs, a player has to reach certain levels of ability, which range from hack to amateur and pro. Since the prospect of better performance and rewards is a time-honored recipe for addiction among gamers and golfers alike, the WGT can get one hooked faster than a starving trout.

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