Golf and video games don’t seem to go together on the surface, but the sport has always translated well to digital interactivity. The 16 iterations of titles named for all-time great Tiger Woods frequently were among the better reviewed sports games on the market.
But the PGA Tour, which lent its license to the Woods games, hadn’t been integrated into a game since 2015 until late this summer. That’s when HB Studios’ under-the-radar franchise released “The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA Tour.”
“The Golf Club” series had developed a strong reputation for its deep, intuitive course creation suite and sound gameplay, likely what attracted the Tour to partner with a new franchise for the first time since the 1990s. Both elements are on full display in the latest release, although the Tour license isn’t being used to its full potential yet.
The core gameplay is pretty solid, for the most part. Lining up tee shots and approaches is a snap, but this is no easy day on the links. “The Golf Club” is a sports simulation, after all, so it takes time to master the different swings and properly account for variables like wind and lie. It’s tough but fair, as any good sim should be.
Putting, on the other hand, merely mimics how frustrating the short game can be. One should expect a challenging system, but the one present in “The Golf Club” presents a steeper learning curve than necessary. It’s often difficult to tell from the grid interface how much a green slopes or how long a backswing is needed for a putt to reach the hole. It’s not impossible, but it feels like a shortcoming in an otherwise strong experience.
Perhaps more egregious is the merely surface level integration of the Tour itself. Yes, career mode now sports the different levels of professional golf in their licensed glory, but there’s a lack of personality to the experience. Considering the only playable golfer in the game is the lone custom creation attached to one’s account — indeed, there are no PGA Tour golfers like Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka available in any mode — the absence of any sort of even basic story elements sticks out in today’s sports game landscape.
Most of the incentive to play the various modes is to earn coins and unlock new clothes to deck out the avatar. That’s all well and good, but there’s no way to customize the stats of the golfer — a commonality in the subgenre. These type of RPG elements are ubiquitous in most games as a whole by now, so not including something so widely used feels strange.
Online play, which can be done through one-off matches or through the promising online Societies mode, is smooth. Players don’t take turns with opponents, instead attacking holes at the same time but never seeing the other player. It’s a weird experience; while it saves time, it’s disappointing to never be able to see my opponent’s golfer at world — just their ball and a red indicator of its path. An option to turn this on and off would be nice, especially since it could be fun to show off a created golfer throughout the match to an opponent.
Where “The Golf Club” shines brightest is in its course creator. Making a full course from scratch takes only a few minutes, accomplished by moving around some sliders to one’s liking and allowing the game engine to generate the desired number of holes. Those looking to change details are free to do so, so creators can go to town. Add that to the inclusion of famous real-life TPC (Tournament Players Club) courses such as Sawgrass, the fictitious courses bundled in and the thousands of community creations available to download, and it’s clear where the game’s strength lies.
“The Golf Club 2019” is a window into the vast untapped potential of the franchise. On its own, it’s a solid entry that will sate hungry golf sim fans but still leaves much to be desired.
“The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA Tour,” published by 2K Games and developed by HB Studios, is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC, $49.99