Scratch that itch: Fantasy golf can be the cure for the winter golf blues

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO, Ill. -- The image is clear: A restless, winter-weary golfer dressed in boxer shorts, tube socks and "Will Golf for Food" on his shirt, sits wide-eyed at his PC, beer in hand, feverishly going over every statistic from the PGA Tour. His hair hasn't been combed in two days because he's been scouring the web searching for that one stat that will seal the deal for him on his choice of Jeff Sluman or Kirk Triplett. The decision could make or break his year - his year on the Fantasy Golf Tour.

Fantasy golf games are growing faster than Tiger's career earnings.
And for a lot of golfers who live in the bitter winter climates
of the north, fantasy golf has become one of the most popular
ways to scratch the golf itch.

"This really helps me pass the time when you can't get out and hit the ball," says Steve VanAcker of Crystal Lake, Ill. "And yes, I spend a lot of time, 20 to 30 hours, doing research over the winter. But, no, I don't sit around in my boxer shorts."

Yes, that image is probably unfair. But there is no doubt the participants in many fantasy golf leagues can be very - well - into it.

"I've been playing for eight years. I play off the Internet with a bunch of local guys, and I also play the fantasy game online at Golfweek magazine," says VanAcker, who also the superintendent at Crystal Lake Country Club.

VanAcker has done very well for himself. He won a set of irons and a golf bag from Golfweek and just missed a nice payout coming in at 10th place in the overall standings for the 2002 season. Golfweek had big prizes for the top eight players, including a $10,000 first place prize.

"We start in the spring, but the participants really get jacked up about the season in January and February," says Armand Cimaroli, the administrator for Golfweek's fantasy golf leagues. "I get people calling me all the time, asking questions, getting information. And we see a lot of northern guys, no question."

Fantasy golf games range from the simple to the sophisticated. Some are free, some cost money to participate. Many are Internet based, but there are an uncountable number that are not, and there are plenty that are products of homegrown leagues put together by friends and colleagues.

Sometimes they are based on scores, or statistics, but others are linked to earnings. All of them, though, are about picking or drafting players who are placed on your personal fantasy team. In some cases this is for the entire season, but in others participants choose new players each week. And although most games are linked to the PGA Tour, some add in the LPGA Tour or the Senior PGA Tour (The Champions Tour) to add some flavor.

Terry Gronberg of Lawrenceburg, Ind., plays in a couple of different fantasy golf leagues, and in the 2002 PGA season he had Fred Funk on his team.

"Funk was my wild-card pick. His good year was my good year," says Gronberg, who has won more than $2,000 in the past three years playing in fantasy leagues.

Charlie Wiegert manages the fantasy golf league at the Golf Channel and has watched the numbers of participants grow.

"We've got hundreds of thousands of people taking part. I've been administering fantasy sports leagues for years, and I wasn't sold on how a golf league would do," says Wiegert. "Boy, was I wrong."

Cimaroli, of Golfweek, says he believes the Internet has seen the most growth. "You can go almost anywhere and play online. It's mind-boggling."

And it appears people from all walks of life like to play these games.

Chuck Garbedian of Milwaukee, Wisc., says his small league of 10 players is as diverse as it comes.

"We have a grade school principal, a home remodeling contractor, a college student, one guy from Indiana, another from New York and not all of them are golfers, and not all of them are men," says Garbedian, who used to have the job of working the scoreboard at County Stadium in Milwaukee.

Taking part in the fantasy golf leagues not only helps get a northern golfer through the dead of winter, but it also adds to the excitement of the heart of the golf season.

"When I get together with the friends I golf with in a league Thursday nights, that's all we talk about. It makes it fun to watch the tournaments," says fantasy golfer VanAcker.

Some might complain about the fantasy leagues being a form of gambling, but it's no different than college basketball's March Madness. Office pools based on basketball's biggest month can be found in nearly every business. Golf fantasy leagues haven't yet reached that level, and they probably won't. But the popularity of the games is unmistakable, and although many play simply for fun, others are a lot more serious.

"I'm looking for the prizes. They keep me coming back," says VanAcker. "And I'm going to keep trying to win that $10,000 at Golfweek."

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

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