Gaming

‘PGA Tour 2K21’ Captures Golf’s Essence, From Joy To Frustration

I was excited when PGA Tour 2K21 was announced, but also a touch skeptical. I haven’t owned a golf video game since the last year of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour title, in part because there was a monotony to golf gaming — and an ease to playing them — that made it hard to want to go back to them over and over.

Golf is a sport that is, inherently, frustrating and imperfect. You return to the golf course because of moments of brilliance that stick in your head, making you believe that maybe you could replicate the good shots more often than the bad. But no matter what, the perfect round of golf is impossible and there is no final form to your golf game. Golf is a journey, a constant quest to be better, as evidenced by the likes of Tiger Woods constantly tinkering with their swing in hopes of finding something more to unlock in their game, even at the pinnacle of the sport. That’s a hard thing to capture in a video game.

There is a fine line between making a golf game that becomes no fun because you shoot in the 50s every round, and a golf game that’s no fun because it is impossible. A middle ground is hard to achieve, but I’m pleased to report that PGA Tour 2K21 does just that through its extensive difficulty settings that allow you to make the game right for you. You can tinker with the settings to find a way to make the game challenging, but not impossible; scoreable, but not so easy it feels like cheating.

My first advice to anyone picking up the game is to spend a good bit of time in the training mode, practicing your swing tempo and, most especially, getting a feel on the greens. I rushed through the training section and hustled my way to the career mode, assuming that I’ve played plenty of golf games in the past and this one will come to me quickly.

Wrong.

I missed the cut on my first three efforts at Korn Ferry Tour Q School on “Pro” difficulty (the fourth hardest of six possible presets, with plenty of customization available on top of that). My swing tempo was not consistent, leading to a number of hooks and slices off the tee, and my putting was truly a disaster. The putting mechanics in the game are extremely delicate and the first few rounds, if you decide to start on too hard of a difficulty, will lead you to occasionally blast a putt so far past the hole that you end up off the green. It’s incredibly frustrating, but as you play more your right thumb will steadily get better at gently pulling back on the joystick and then striking through at the right time to hit the correct power.

Reading putts is like every other golf game you’ve ever played, with a grid on the green and dashes moving at different speeds showing you how much slope the green has, both side to side and up or downhill. That was intuitive for me, but everything else about this game took some learning since I have never played on The Golf Club engine and I wish I’d spent more time on the virtual range dialing all of that in. After dropping back to “Pro-Am” to make life easier while I figured out my swing and putt timing, I was able to make it through Q School and onto the Korn Ferry Tour (which is like the PGA Tour’s version of AAA baseball).

I rolled through the Korn Ferry Tour season and earned my PGA Tour card, but swiftly realized that I had swung too far to the easy side and the game was quickly becoming not fun, so I returned to “Pro” mode. It’s there that I still reside, in the midst of my first PGA Tour season and have found the sweet spot, for now, where I still have my arduous rounds in the 70s, but when I play well, I’m capable of winning tournaments. There are still loose swings and bad putts and times where I get incredibly frustrated, but that’s golf and it is genuinely impressive how well they capture that essence.

This isn’t to say it’s a perfect simulation of real world golf, and I do have some gripes about some things. Distance is a real problem that I hope they find a way to tinker with, particularly when you end up on some of these longer PGA Tour courses in the 7,700 yard range. There are no attributes in the game, so you don’t get better at things as you go. You can add to your distance with certain clubs if you’re willing to sacrifice on forgiveness and swing plane (which dictates how perfect your joystick motion has to be to keep things straight), and while that’s understandable, the base distances just seem off. Your driver goes about 270 yards, with a 3-wood that goes 230 and a 5-wood that goes 210. I am a 5-handicap golfer in the real world, so I’m solid but far from a PGA Tour pro. I carry a 4-iron 210 without trouble and my 3-wood carries 250-plus.

I understand not wanting to make the game into a pitch-and-putt where you hit it 350 off of the tee, but I think they dialed things back too much in the interests of keeping it from being an arcade game. You could add 10-15 yards to each club and still keep that same realism, while not forcing me to launch fairway woods into half of the par 3s on Tour, when no Tour pro is pulling more than 5-iron in real life.

My other main gameplay gripe is how it is impossible to hit anything long out of the rough. Again, their heart is in the right place to make things realistic and not let you just hit whatever out of the rough with no penalty, but every course’s rough in the game plays like a U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. The longest club you can hit out of heavy rough is an iron, and your 4-iron will only carry about 145-150 yards. I have no doubts that making the rough play like real rough is an impossible task, but this is a swing too far in the direction of making it difficult. I can promise you, you can take a full cut with a long iron or hybrid out of the rough at TPC Sawgrass and still advance it pretty close to your normal distance.

Still, even with those complaints, the gameplay is terrific. The reality of the importance of swing tempo and the shot shaping/angle of attack controlling spin (rather than a spin button while the ball’s in the air) makes for a really fun experience that, once you really get a hang of it, allows you to play a lot of different shot types and make the ball do what you want.

Now, as for presentation, it stumbles in some of the same ways many sports video games do. Despite their best efforts, the commentary can often be redundant and offered little in the way of enhancing the game for me. I highly suggest that once you reach the Tour you go to settings and turn off the live updates because they happen way too often and, to me anyway, were obnoxious. I don’t play sports games because I want them to look like a sports television broadcast, I want them to feel like I’m playing the sport. They achieve the latter with the gameplay, but I don’t get why so many games get so caught up on the former. Make the game look good and play good and please spare me trying to make it some viewing experience by showing me what other players are doing on the course. I really don’t need fake highlights from other golfers.

The career mode arc is fine. They do a great job with the 15 courses they scanned into the game as well as the created courses that fill out the 30-event season. The rivalries have done little for me thus far, as the first few I’ve just rolled through and there’s no interaction with the challenges, you just have to beat them in tournaments in different areas. The same goes for the sponsor challenges. They’re a nice additional benchmark to occasionally think about while you’re playing, but I personally don’t care too much about getting more gear for my MyPlayer, so a lot of the apparel sponsors aren’t super appealing to me.

Beyond the career mode, the star of the game for me thus far is the Course Designer. It is a fully immersive experience that gives you the keys to create a golf course from scratch or, if you’d like, from templates. As someone who played high school golf at a mediocre home course, we would often talk about how we’d change things if we ever had lots of money and resources to redesign it. So, when I got this game, one of my primary goals was try to recreate Honey Creek Golf Club in Conyers, Georgia, but in my vision.

PGA Tour 2K21

To build a course from scratch takes a lot of time — it was, like, 8 hours total I think and even then I wasn’t going very crazy with things — but it is, without a doubt, the thing that’ll keep me coming back to the game to create different courses and try out different designs. I had a few difficulties, like I couldn’t get it to add rough in places I wanted (I had no problems adding fairway or beefing up greens, just rough), and that might’ve just been a me problem. Also adding water features takes a lot of effort at first as you have to raise and lower the land where you want a pond or creek, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier. Overall the designer was terrific and the options for adjusting slopes, customizing the landscape, and adding objects, bunkers, and trees are very extensive.

I was highly impressed with PGA Tour 2K21, even with some of its flaws, and think it’s a terrific re-entry by the Tour to the gaming space — and that’s without really being able to dive into the flagship mode of The Golf Club games and join or start an online society with friends (or random people from the golf community). The career mode isn’t the most dynamic or immersive and there’s room for improvement, but the gameplay and course designer make it not just a worthwhile game to go out and get but something you’ll want to keep coming back to, because just like real golf, there will always be another level to try to master.

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