TEEING OFF INTO CYBERSPACE 'COMPUTER LIFE,' IBM BACK FIRST SPONSORED ONLINE GOLF TOURNEY

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The winds are blustery and the pins are tucked back on a soft and sloping green. The tee markers have been moved back to the tips where you're almost standing uphill. And the competition is fierce.

These golfers are truly out of this world, but they're not professionals. They're cyberspace golfers-a group that's growing fast and creating a new market for software companies, corporate sponsors and advertisers.

Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.'s Computer Life, IBM PC Direct and Computer Sports Network, an online service, are backing what may be the first sponsored online golf tournament, played on a replica of Hilton Head Island's Harbour Town course.

With a modem and a Windows-compatible PC, some 300 computer golfers are playing four rounds each, sending messages to other players and viewing scorecards, leader boards and statistics. When the tournament ends later this month, the top golfer will receive an IBM ThinkPad color notebook computer, the runner-up an IBM Aptiva multimedia computer.

The idea originated with a computer sports story in Computer Life. The publication approached Computer Sports Network and IBM PC Direct to co-sponsor the tournament for its subscribers.

"This is a great opportunity for our readers to experience the thrill of championship golf online and to interact with other readers throughout the country," said Sherry Huss, director of electronic publishing at Ziff-Davis' Consumer Media Group. "I found many companies at the Consumer Electronics Show that have similar products-like a fishing tournament or fantasy baseball-that would be wonderful components to enable us as a magazine to collectively gather our community online and provide a valuable market for other sponsors."

Although this is the first time Computer Sports Network has offered a sponsored tournament, the company is discussing deals with several companies, from golf ball marketers to sports magazines to software companies.

Sponsorships could range anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 and up, depending on individual contracts, said Jim Cash, division manager for Computer Sports Network, which offers weekly golf, baseball and other tournaments.

"We're focusing on multiplying our subscription base, and once we do that, we'll be a real attractive market to draw big-time sponsors," Mr. Cash said.

Computer Sports Network's subscriber base has tripled to close to 5,000 in the past year as more and more golfers log on to computers. Golfers have a choice of 16 replica courses to play online. Access Software, Salt Lake City, provides the software while Computer Sports Network links players together.

The company normally charges online golfers $30 per year plus tournament costs and online fees to participate, but it waived those fees for the Computer Life tie-in.

"If the pro tour is playing at Pebble Beach one weekend, our subscribers can basically play along with the professionals, but against each other," Mr. Cash said.

"Competing with others makes playing more fun, it makes me play a lot more often, too," said Gordon Daniel, regional manager of consumer lending at a San Antonio, Texas, bank and a Computer Sports Network subscriber who plays about nine rounds of golf a week. "And after e-mailing with some of these guys, we've met in person and become real friends."

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