Tiger Woods 08's touchy controls, iffy online play, and a general lack of new content made for one disappointing game. But just as Tiger didn't let torn ligaments and a broken leg keep him from winning the US Open, EA Sports hasn't used the short development cycle associated with yearly games as an excuse. Instead, it has worked to make the controls more user-friendly and further integrated the online gamernet feature. The result is a game that's worthy of carrying the Tiger Woods name.
Tiger Woods 09's controls aren't vastly different from TW 08, but they're much more forgiving. You start your swing by pulling back on the analog stick and then strike the ball by moving the stick forward. A more traditional three-button-press option is available at any time by clicking the right analog stick. Last year, the slightest deviation left or right during your swing would result in a terrible shot, particularly if you were using a golfer with low skill attributes. This year, not only are you punished less severely if your swing isn't perfect, but you also get instant feedback via an onscreen meter that shows exactly how you moved the stick. By monitoring this feedback, you can learn how to straighten your swing or compensate for your natural swing by adjusting your aim or by adding a draw or fade to the ball with the press of a button.
The addition of Tiger's own coach Hank Haney to TW 09 makes hitting the ball easier as well. You can now head to the driving range and adjust each of your clubs to best suit your playing style. For example, if you're struggling for accuracy off the tee, you can increase the sweet spot on your driver. This will help ensure that your drives stay on the fairway, but you'll sacrifice some distance. This level of customization is often intimidating in sports games, but here, the process is simple and worthwhile.
TW 09 includes 16 golf courses, which is the same number as last year. New courses include Wentworth, Sheshan, Wolf Creek, and Bay Hill. The Gary Player Country Club in South Africa is an excellent addition to the mix, but it's disappointing that there aren't more courses--especially when you consider how quick EA was to charge for downloadable courses in 08. The roster of male and female professional golfers is about the same as before, but there are a few new faces, such as Se Ri Pak and Darren Clarke. Like previous iterations, you can create a golfer using the game's deep customization tools, and you can even import your own photos to make a truly lifelike version of your mug (you can even add eyebrows this year).
Money is earned by playing on the PGA Tour or by completing events, such as beating golfers head-to-head, driving the ball a certain number of yards, getting a particular score on a group of holes, and more in the Tiger Challenge mode. Cash can then be used to buy new gear, some of which carries a small skill bonus. Unlike in the past, you'll actually have to earn most of your attributes on the links with the new dynamic skill-progression feature. After each round (and most challenges), coach Haney will raise or lower your driving, accuracy, short game, and putting attributes based on your performance. Rather than punish you for playing poorly (though he still does that), Haney gives you the chance to earn a few points back with brief challenges where you try to hit the ball into a large circular target. The new system isn't perfect--sometimes Haney will tell you to drive into bushes, put you in an impossible lie, or lower your putting attributes even when you set a course record--but it's a great way of making character progression feel organic.
No dramatic changes have been made with regards to online play, but a few tweaks and additions go a long way. The most notable change is that you can now play with up to three other people at the same time online. Being able to all hit at the same time really speeds things up, even if the colored trails that show other players' balls are sometimes distracting. With the gamernet feature, you can quickly upload a shot, hole, front or back nine, and even a whole round with the press of a button. You then are able to go online and play a nearly endless stream of challenges. You'll have to filter through some ridiculously easy and impossibly difficult shots for the best experience, but even if you don't feel like searching, you can still enjoy the feature thanks to periodic challenges (long drives, closest to the pin) that pop up during single-player rounds. Last year's game had a ton of problems when it came to playing online, downloading photos, and uploading gamernet clips, but so far, all of TW 09's online features work great.
Friendly controls and excellent courses, as well as a plethora of challenges and game modes, make for outstanding gameplay, but there are a few areas that could have been better. Putting is still a bit easy, although you are punished a bit more than before if you go left or right with the stick. For some unknown reason, you still can't skip the turns of CPU golfers, which makes head-to-head play take forever--especially if the AI can't figure out how to get around a tree, which happens from time to time. Courses and golfers generally look fantastic (especially the water, which is gorgeous), but nonexistent preswing-to-swing transitions and some glitchy load screens are unsightly. A new announcing team takes to the microphones this year, but it's about as dull as its predecessors and will lull you to sleep in a hurry. You're better off just listening to the game's soundtrack, which is excellent.
The real-time swing meter, club tuner, and advice of Hank Haney make getting the perfect swing easier than ever. Dynamic skill progression, while not perfect, is a welcome addition; not only because a new system was needed, but also because it makes every swing important--even if you're winning or losing by 10 strokes. Some more courses would have been nice, but otherwise, there's very little not to like with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09. It's amazing how a few small changes can make a game so much better.