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hope for the worst

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They may toil away in obscurity and root for others to fail, but the folks at Hole In One International say they play a valuable role in the world of advertising.

The Reno, Nev., company offers "prize indemnification"—guaranteed payment through insurance coverage—for sponsors who run hole-in-one contests and other stunts that promise large prizes to people who pull off the nearly impossible. For as little as $125, a sponsor can promise thousands to anyone who succeeds and not have to leave town if they do.

"The odds of someone getting a hole in one are anywhere from 5,000-to-1 to 25,000-to-1," said Kevin Kelly, vice president of the 12-year-old company, which has paid off contest winners "hundreds of times."

Premiums are based on factors such as the length of the hole and number of participants. (For half-court basket ball shots, the price of insurance increases if a practice shot is allowed.)

Of course, HIOI only succeeds when others fail, and Kelly admits that he breathes a slight sigh of relief when golfers slice or basketballs sail over the backboard.

"People winning is not what you want to see," he said. "It's not good for us."