Any weekend hacker worth his greens fees will tell you that Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world and possibly the most talented player ever. So far EA has failed to deliver a Tiger Woods golf game worthy of the pro endorsing it. But with the added developmental headroom provided by the PlayStation 2 hardware, it's high time for the series to finally step to the forefront as the most advanced golf simulation available on the consoles with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2001.
EA has had the PGA Tour license locked down for almost a decade. The series prospered in the 16-bit days of the Sega Genesis and the SNES, but it has failed to capture the same magic since it made the transition to 3D. One facet of the series that has improved over time is the quantity of game options available. The 2001 iteration does not disappoint in that respect. EA claims that nine real-world golfers will be included in PGA Tour 2001 including Justin Leonard, Lee Janzen, Mark O'Meara, Brad Faxon, Mark Calcavecchia, Robert Damron, Stuart Appleby, Steve Stricker, and the namesake of the game, Tiger Woods. The burn that we received features just six available players, as Stricker, Appleby, and Janzen haven't been included yet. Up to four players can play through the grueling PGA Tour, play a skins game for some big cash, play hole-for-hole in match play, or go for the lowest score in stroke play. For those in need of gameplay assistance, there's a nice tutorial mode to lend a hand.
PGA Tour 2001 has enough gameplay depth to satisfy the most hard-core of duffers. The analog swing has returned from past installments of the PGA Tour franchise, and striking the ball is simple. Just pull back on either analog stick and push forward when the meter reaches its peak. Pushing the analog stick slightly to the left or right while pushing forward performs draws and fades. The problem with the swing mechanism is that it's far too easy to slice or hook the ball on accident, resulting in costly penalty strokes. The lack of definitive north and south notches in the Dual Shock 2's analog stick assembly only makes the mechanism all the more frustrating. Granted, it more closely simulates the subtle control required for a consistent golf swing in the real world, but most people play sports video games to be better at the sport than they truly are, not worse.
The control depth doesn't just stop at the swing. If your ball's in the rough or buried in a bunker, you may look at the lie, alter your stance, and choose from three different shot types. Pitches allow you to hit shots with a short loft that will land softly and run to the hole, chips are for short approach shots around the green, and punch shots come in handy when there are some tree branches overhead. During each shot, you may hold the D-pad to control ball spin. If you hold the D-pad up while swinging, the ball will have topspin, causing it to run once it hits the ground. Adding topspin to a tee shot can increase the shot distance by up to 60 yards. Conversely, holding down on the D-pad while swinging will give the ball some wicked backspin to stop it dead in its tracks.
The graphics are a huge improvement over those of the PlayStation version, but they aren't representative of what EA has accomplished thus far on the PS2. The players are detailed and accurately modeled, right down to their silly hats and plaid pants. The motion-captured golf swing animations are buttery smooth, and players celebrate after a great shot or toss their clubs in the air after a bad swing. The version we received has just three courses available including Spyglass Hill, Poppy Hills, and Tiger's home court, Pebble Beach, which is exclusive to the PGA Tour series. While each hole is modeled with precision down to the last bunker, they still appear overly barren. There are very few trees, and the ones that are there are of the high-school musical prop variety. The camera angles switch quickly to provide some nice visuals during shots, and the perspective may be manually controlled to allow for a panoramic view of the hole. It's puzzling why EA insists on not including a gallery of fans around each green. It makes the game feel like a lonesome round with the boys instead of a PGA Tour event.
Breaking the mold of most golf games from the past, the sound in PGA Tour 2001 is more than just birds chirping and the whoosh of swinging clubs. The announcers begin to taunt you in hushed tones if you're enduring a string of bad luck, and they'll congratulate you if you hit a perfect shot. Golfers taunt one another and beg their shots to stick or run. Tiger has recorded a multitude of samples for the game, and he has a comment for every situation. Fans accurately respond to the action, though they are nowhere to be found on the course.
For those who have tired of the Hot Shots/Mario Golf arcade-influenced golf games, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2001 is shaping up to be a refreshing change. The gameplay has depth, the graphics are some of the best for a golf game yet, and the presentation is of broadcast-TV quality. There are a few graphical glitches for EA to iron out and several features to add, but for all intents and purposes, this game is ready for retail. With plenty of time before its mid-March release date arrives, EA should have no problem cleaning up the game before it ships. We'll have more on this promising PlayStation 2 golf game when we receive an updated version.