The predecessor to Sierra Sports' PGA Championship Golf 2000, PGA Championship Golf 1999 Edition, finally achieved what many other PC golf sims have tried to do for nearly ten years. By stripping away unrealistic golf-sim conventions such as aiming flags and shot arcs and replacing them with a more true-to-life shot-setup mode and a great mouse-swing system, PGA Championship Golf 1999 delivered what computer-golf fans crave most: a simulation that mimics the experience of actually hitting the links for a round of golf as closely as possible.
After the disappointing Links LS 2000 and Activision's decision to nix the Jack Nicklaus series, the stage was set for the next installment in the PGA Championship Golf series to assume the mantle of golf-sim champ - and PGA Championship Golf 2000 does precisely that. It's true that the game could stand a bit of polish in a few areas - its graphics are still a hairbreadth short of the visuals in Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear Challenge. But make no mistake: PGA Championship Golf 2000 is currently the unrivaled king of golf sims.
So how is it possible that such a fantastic golf sim carries a low $29.99 sticker price? The reason may in fact be the consequence of one of the game's few weak points - instead of paying for licenses to use real-life courses, Sierra Sports opted to augment the existing lineup of courses from the 1999 edition with five courses that were designed through the use of the PGA 2000 Course Architect. The five courses, set in environments from cactus-filled deserts and breezy coastal peninsulas to gently rolling forests, feature their own unique and significant challenges. So it's hard to complain - especially when you consider that all the user-created courses available for the 1999 edition work with this new version and that more will be created through the use of the new Course Architect. Still, it would have been nice if Sierra had found a way to add at least one or two famous venues.
However, regardless of which courses you play, you'll continually appreciate the quality of the 3D-rendered terrain. Instead of the flat 2D trees typical of other golf sims, the trees in PGA 2000 appear so lifelike at higher resolutions that you might be tempted to walk over and take a rest under one. From the fairways to the roughs, most everything in PGA Championship 2000 looks like the real deal (though the authentic courses do look slightly better than the ones created with the Course Architect). Shadows from trees are also accurately rendered, though you'll notice that the trees, unlike the flags, never seem to move in the wind.
About the only aspect of the game's graphics that could stand a little work is in the rendering of water - compared to the reflective surfaces found in Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear Challenge, the wet stuff in PGA Championship 2000 appears to be almost solid. You might also spot an occasional graphical glitch, such as the ball turning dark or even tiger-striped, but these are so sporadic (and usually remedied by simply exiting the game and restarting) that they're not worth mentioning at greater detail.
You won't find two dozen game types of a Links LS in PGA Championship Golf 2000, but all your favorite ways of playing are available, including stroke, match, skins, scramble, and a variety of best-ball variations. Length of rough, green speed, and wind conditions can all be adjusted, as can rules such as mulligans and gimmies. There's also a "readyplay" option that lets you go ahead and take your next shot regardless of who's farthest away or where your opponent (human or computer) is on the hole.
Analysts Mark Lye and Grant Boone provide color commentary as they do in PGA 2000's predecessor, but the commentary still isn't perfect. Sometimes they have great lines, especially when you hook the ball or have a splashdown, but they still have the godlike ability to announce that the ball will catch the rough a split second after a shot, when the results are still uncertain. And occasionally they're just plain wrong - once they were moaning about a lousy tee shot when the ball actually wound up in the middle of the fairway. On another occasion, they said a shot hit from the rough would be difficult when the ball was actually in the dirt, far from any grass. Despite all this, their commentary tends to be accurate and entertaining enough that you'll leave it on, and the enhanced crowd noises really get you into the game - you can even hear cheering at other holes when you're playing in a tournament event.
Though some players will cling to the mouse-click method of executing shots, there's never been a better opportunity to make the transition to the mouse-movement style of emulating the swing. It definitely takes a bit of practice before you achieve the same level of accuracy using the TrueSwing as you can get from the more traditional combo of mouse clicks and a power-meter bar. But once you begin to get the feel for it, you'll discover that you can chip and putt with more accuracy and finesse - and it's also a lot more rewarding, not to mention more realistic. You'll notice how tough it is to work your way out of thick rough, dig out a ball that's buried in a sand trap, or apply the right backspin. You'll find that the mouse swing is very rewarding for these types of situations.
Unfortunately, some of the computer players' behavioral patterns aren't quite as realistic. There's no way to fine-tune a computer opponent's strengths and weaknesses - something that both the Jack Nicklaus and Links games let you do. And you'll occasionally be shocked at some of the wretched shots the players attempt at the default difficulty setting. You'll sometimes see players on the fringe chip through the green and down on the opposite side, and it's extremely rare they'll make a putt beyond ten feet. But then again a lot of real-life players don't fare any better - and as you attempt to master the TrueSwing, chances are you'll appreciate the breathing room provided by the computer's errors.
One of the biggest improvements in PGA 2000 over the 1999 edition is the inclusion of a season mode, in which you can compete for purses you designate against a strong field of fictional pros. Setting up a season is a straightforward process, but there are a couple of anomalies. One is that you're forced to select four rounds of 18 holes for a 72-hole event - choose "add round," select it, then repeat three more times - rather than simply choosing 72 holes that default into four rounds. This same unnecessary repetition applies to options such as readyplay and the use of handicaps for each four rounds in an event. It's a minor problem, but it could have been avoided.
There's one other frustrating design decision in the season play mode: There's no option to save a game during play. If you start a round, you have to finish all 18 holes for it to count. A patch could easily accommodate those who don't want to sit around for an hour per session just to compete in season play.
The game's multiplayer support includes modem, LAN, and Internet play, but it's too bad that Sierra Sports decided to limit online play to competition over the WON network. This decision might have been to ensure that you could always find an opponent, but the omission of a direct TCP/IP connection is unfortunate, particularly since a lot of PGA Championship Golf owners will be competing in their own leagues and will not need the hand-holding of the WON matchmaking service. The good news is that the service seems to be more stable than it previously has been, and the readyplay option means you can plow through 18 holes as quickly as if you were playing all by your lonesome.
Certainly there are other golf games slated to hit the shelves between now and next year. But unless something pretty spectacular comes along, PGA Championship Golf 2000 will remain the game of choice for discriminating golf fans.