On one side stood Mark Stenmark, a brawny software developer from Houston. Stenmark, the 2017 champion, avoided trash talk in tournament play by donning large headphones like a focused poker player intent on dominating the competition. From a match play standpoint, few players are more feared.
His opponent was Jared Decker, a relative newcomer to the sport who defeated several elite competitors en route to the finals, including two-time world champion Andy Haas. "It felt like I was a 100th-ranked PGA Tour player facing the No. 1 guy in the world," Decker said.
The duo exchanged brilliant shot-making in a gripping, sudden-death playoff, with each nearly holing tee shots from beyond 200 yards. Stenmark prevailed on the 13th hole of sudden death, when Decker's 40-foot chip for birdie hit the flagstick and rolled off the green.
No, this wasn't a PGA Tour event with golfers you haven't heard of. It was the 2019 Golden Tee World Championships, which took place in late June in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, ESPN will broadcast a 30-minute encore presentation of the event as part of ESPN 8: The Ocho Presented by State Farm.
"We're thrilled about the partnership with ESPN, and we believe that opportunities such as these are the future for Golden Tee," said Adam Kramer, Golden Tee's project director. "Interest in esports is exploding. We believe Golden Tee, which has a 30-year history of competition, could carve out its own unique niche in this world. The game is alive, thriving, and we're really excited for our future and what will come next."
Stenmark joins a select group of elite players with multiple world championships to their names.
"For me personally, it's basically what I've worked for the past 12 years, playing this game religiously," Stenmark said of his second world title.
Stenmark's proficiency in the popular arcade golf game might be unparalleled. Two years ago, Stenmark captured the world championship despite playing sparingly over a six-month period while he completed a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Houston-Downtown. The world's top Golden Tee players spend upward of 10 hours a day honing their craft. At least seven entrants from this year's field had logged more than 90,000 rounds in their respective careers when they arrived in Las Vegas for the world championships.
On Catedrais Beach, a cliffside course with crosswinds of up to 15 mph on the back nine, Stenmark capitalized on his ability to play into the wind. Using a lofted club on the par-4, 290-yard No. 12, Stenmark applied enough backspin to land his drive 25 feet within the hole. The challenging setup forced the golfers to play a draw into an 11 mph wind from an elevated tee.
It's the type of shot that only a handful of seasoned pros were able to execute a decade ago, Stenmark said. Now, newcomers such as Decker are picking up the intricacies of the game at a quicker rate, creating deeper fields for the major events.
"They're really closing the gap," Stenmark said inside a ballroom at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas after collecting a $30,000 winners' paycheck.
Decker nearly ended the tournament in regulation with an eagle chip on 18 from the fringe. Decker expected the 35-foot chip to break to the right, but it pulled slightly left and hit the flagstick. Stenmark's short eagle from 18 feet moved him to 29 under, forcing a playoff.
While organizers of other esports events throughout Las Vegas have yet to offer betting lines, the Nevada Gaming Control Board granted approval for wagering on the Golden Tee World Championships in May. Boyd Gaming Corporation, which operates an expansive sportsbook inside The Orleans, offered future odds on the tournament for the second straight year.
Although Stenmark opened as the 10-1 third choice, he received enough backing to emerge as the 2-1 favorite on the eve of the tournament. Decker entered at 25-1, behind more than a dozen other entrants. Defending champion Evan Gossett, who went off as the 5-1 second choice, failed to make the championship bracket.
Boyd set limits of around $500 for most futures wagers, a Boyd sportsbook manager told ESPN.com. For golfers with odds of 75-1, the highest price on the board, the company expressed hesitancy to accept bets of $1,000 or more.
Golden Tee organizers are considering offering head-to-head wagers for future events.
The presence of betting lines at the past two world championships has had an undeniable impact on both events, Kramer said. While legalized sports betting continues to expand nationwide, Golden Tee is exploring new venues for major tournaments.
"We would love to expand these events in scope," Kramer said. "The thought of more jurisdictions and wagering options is something we would love to explore."