Sports games generally tend to be more arcadey than simulation, with easy-to-learn basic mechanics that make the experience breezy off the bat while also having enough depth to appeal to competitive players. HB Studios' The Golf Club series has consistently defied that mantra by embracing the exacting challenges and unpredictability of golf since its debut title in 2014. With the 2K Games rebrand, I thought PGA Tour 2K21 might aim to be more like EA's defunct golf series. Instead, what's here is a refinement of The Golf Club 2019, with welcome new features and mechanical tweaks that make for a smoother experience on the course.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, PGA Tour 2K21 is technically the fourth entry in The Golf Club series that was originally self-published by HB Studios. It's the second title to be published by 2K Games following The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA Tour, which 2K helped polish ahead of its release in 2018. The transition to the 2K Sports naming convention will likely garner more eyeballs, but for dedicated fans of The Golf Club like myself, you don't have to worry about HB Studios messing with the formula too much.
PGA Tour 2K21's major gameplay change comes with the motion you repeat over and over: your swing. HB Studios removed backswing tempo, which in turn promotes consistent, crisp ball-striking. Every golfer at all levels of play--including Tour pros--has different backswing timing, making this change quite welcome. Overall, I found it much easier to get "perfect" tempo swings. That's not to say the analog stick swing mechanics are too easy now. You still have to make the transition to your downswing in one smooth turn to hit the golf ball on target; the removal of backswing timing merely tosses one unnecessary variable out of the equation, freeing you up to get into a nice groove. Solid swings have a cleaner and fluid look in PGA Tour 2K21, with speed feeling more in-step with real life.
Unlike the extremely forgiving Tiger Woods games with the same control scheme, PGA Tour 2K21's swing mechanics rely on dialed-in precision, at least when you play on Pro settings and up--a requirement for online matches. Get lackadaisical in your downswing and you'll push the ball. Turn over too quickly and you'll pull it. Nailing the timing just right is quite satisfying and is key to posting low scores.
PGA Tour 2K21 has six swing difficulty levels--double the number from The Golf Club 2019--that can be further customized to fit your skill level. Beginners can turn swing timing off and enjoy a far more forgiving experience on one of the three amateur settings--though these are still more challenging than the EA Sports golf games. On the opposite side of the coin, enthusiasts who plan on competing online can play on Pro, Master, or Legend--a difficulty level that requires extremely consistent and precise swings to excel. It's nice that HB Studios added a larger range of difficulty settings without hindering the core experience. Golf is an incredibly challenging game, and PGA Tour 2K21 showcases this while also being more inviting to newcomers.
PGA Tour 2K21 certainly improves on the overall quality of the golf gameplay, but it's not without its misses. If you hit a wayward tee shot, the rough will be there to punish you. The thick grass is as unforgiving as previous games in the series, a fact that makes me feel conflicted. Tour venues tend to have nasty rough that penalizes golfers for missing the fairway, but PGA Tour 2K21's rough can quickly become relentless. On short approach shots where you have a wedge in your hand, the ball tends to come out cleanly with good timing if you club up. Outside of wedge territory and definitely when you start approaching 200 yards, the rough starts to get a bit wonky. Shots tend to come out low and can fall upwards of 50 yards short of where they would land out of the fairway. This fact, for anyone who plays golf, is a head-scratcher at best, especially when you consider that coming out of the rough sometimes makes your ball go further if you catch a "flyer." Even hybrids, which are designed to work well in the rough, perform poorly in "heavy rough" and sometimes even "light rough" lies. Incentivizing hitting the fairway is good, but the penalty for missing the rough doesn't exactly feel in-tune with real golf.
Other than the rough woes, PGA Tour 2K21 is the most impressive golf sim to date from tee to green. It gives you an arsenal of shot types to utilize from full swings to chips and everything in between, including complete control over the trajectory of your shot. The flight path of your ball can be shown in the air, much like television broadcasts of real events. There's also plenty of customization to be found for the HUD. From playing with a clean interface to seeing everything on screen from swing feedback to lie angle, PGA Tour 2K21 has all of the necessary bells and whistles, which should be helpful for those learning the ropes. You can adjust green speeds, tee position, wind, and fairway firmness, setting up each course even further to match your skill level. Spin on wedge shots, even with soft greens, still isn't as pronounced as an avid golfer would expect, but it allows you to flag hunt knowing that the ball will stop on a dime after one hop. And above all else, PGA Tour 2K21 has a fulfilling loop that managed to give me a jolt of excitement almost every time I hit a perfect shot.
Once you get on the green, putting remains the most tricky aspect of the series. Estimating breaks and the correct speed takes time to learn regardless of whether you have the grid-based slope on or off. A new putt preview system, which shows you the proper line, does help with the learning curve. By default, you get three previews per round on Pro difficulty (more on lower difficulties, and none on Master/Legend), but you can adjust that number as you see fit. As they say, though, "Drive for show, putt for dough." And PGA Tour 2K21 makes you work for birdies outside of tap-in range. One aspect of putting that can get frustrating are the cups, which routinely reject balls that hit the edges with perfect speed. Lip-outs are a part of golf, but I can't count the number of times I hit a putt that caught the edge and curled out, only to stop inches from the hole.
The solid on the course experience is bolstered by the incentive-filled overarching systems and deep game modes available in PGA Tour 2K21. The 2K rebranding brings MyPlayer to PGA Tour 2K21. From the outset, you create your own golfer using a robust set of creation tools and then head off on the race to the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour. You have the option to jump straight to the Tour or participate in Q-School and a shortened Korn Ferry Tour season to earn your Tour card. The Golf Club 2019 had the FedEx Cup already, so the basic progression is the same. That said, expanded use of the official license and better customization features make the career mode more compelling this time around.
PGA Tour 2K21 has 15 real championship courses and events. The Golf Club 2019's six TPC courses--Sawgrass, Scottsdale, Boston, Deere Run, Southwind, and Summerlin--return and are joined by four more TPC courses as well as popular tracks like Riviera, Quail Hollow, Copperhead, Atlantic Beach, and East Lake, the site of the Tour Championship. The remaining courses that fill out the 32-event race to the FedEx Cup are designed by HB Studios. At this point, the only complaint I have about the schedule is that golf's four Major championships aren't present, but hopefully that will change in future iterations.
Every course you step onto across the lengthy season--which you can play as one, two, three, or full four-round events--is a delight, especially the courses that the pros tee it up at each year. HB Studios has replicated these famous layouts to an authentic degree of accuracy. And this time around, you'll see real pros on the leaderboards, including Official World Golf Rankings number one player Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Tony Finau, Jim Furyk, and seven others.
Throughout the season, you'll establish rivalries with the pros, giving you the opportunity to best their performance over a short stretch and unlock new items. CPU performance varies based on your settings, so you can adjust their skill levels if you feel like things are getting too tough or too easy. Sponsorships come with various on-course objectives, which can then be renewed or switched after the contract ends. "Rank up" with a sponsor like TaylorMade, and you'll unlock new SIM Max equipment. This is a stark change from previous entries which only had generic clubs attached to skill level--now you can customize your 14-club set how you see fit with popular brands like TaylorMade, Callaway, and Bridgestone.
Critically, the new club sets mean that those playing with easier settings aren't losing out on distance, as more forgiving clubs--even the starting set--have close to Pro-level distances attached to them. The change is perhaps most profound in the wedge game, as you can now choose between more lofts to fill in the gaps between clubs to your liking. Each club has different attributes for distance, forgiveness, shot shaping, swing plane, and distance control, allowing you to further tweak what's in your bag. Golfers tend to be tinkerers--at least I am--so having more control over your gear adds to the overall strategy and preparation you can do ahead of rounds at various styles of courses.
Though PGA Tour 2K21 has 2K's Virtual Currency, it's lightly implemented in the career mode, even when it comes to brand-name clubs. There's no need to spend real cash on in-game currency to get new gear. You earn VC by playing rounds of golf and leveling up in any mode, which can then be used to purchase new equipment and outfits from brands like Adidas, Under Armour, and Ralph Lauren. But as mentioned, sponsorships also unlock new stuff you can equip without spending any VC. I have a full set of TaylorMade SIM Max clubs that I earned entirely through my sponsorship. It's a much friendlier approach to MyPlayer, especially since you cannot use VC to make your golfer better.
Overall, PGA Tour 2K21's approach to career mode is a welcome change of pace for sports games, but there's one glaring feature that might prove to be confusing for those who look at the cover art. Justin Thomas is the cover athlete, but you cannot play as him or any of the other pros in any game mode.You are locked to your created player. In fact, you will likely only see pictures of the Tour pros and their names on the leaderboards. I say likely because by default each tournament broadcast--your round of golf--is frequently interrupted by highlights from the pros on other holes. This is your only chance to watch them play in the game. The problem is that these interruptions are quite annoying and weirdly frequent. Thankfully, you can turn off the broadcast cutaways and just play your own game. I imagine the non-playable pros have something to do with the licensing agreements, but it's slightly frustrating to not be able to play a casual round as one of the best golfers in the world.
Speaking of presentation, while it won't come as a surprise to anyone who regularly plays sports games, the commentating in PGA Tour 2K21 is pretty bad. Luke Elvy and Rich Beem give solid performances, but after a few rounds, you'll start to notice a ton of repetition as well as repeated inaccuracies with regards to your strokes and position on the leaderboard. I wound up turning the commentary off halfway through my first season and listened to music while playing instead. It's admittedly better than the announcing from previous entries in the series, but it still gets old quite fast.
Outside of the official courses, PGA Tour 2K21 has a course designer and database that will soon be filled with user-created tracks. The course designer is fairly similar to The Golf Club 2019's, though it's more straightforward and generally easier to use. You pick from a set of themes, modify the terrain, and choose the layout, including the number of Par 3s, 4s, and 5s as well as green and fairway sizes. PGA Tour 2K21 auto-generates a course for you based on your selections, which you can then tweak to your liking, including removing and adding entirely new holes. You can add everything from specific plant and tree species to buildings and gates and much more, going as far as designing the scenery in the backdrop. It's a drag-and-drop system that's approachable while providing enough tools to make your own local course or a famous existing course to a tee. Courses made in The Golf Club 2019 can be imported into PGA Tour 2K21 as well.
At the moment, at least on PS4, the course designer certainly chugs, taking more than a few seconds at times to implement each change. I went back to compare the designer with The Golf Club 2019 and found that performance is about the same. While the designer certainly isn't as smooth as the rest of PGA Tour 2K21 experience, it's still an impressive design suite that's bound to bring tons of cool courses to life. And even if you don't feel like spending the time to design your own course, auto-generating new courses is a neat way to play on different layouts with the press of a button. Each time you generate a course, the layout changes, even if all of the settings you have selected are the same.
Online Societies also return in PGA Tour 2K21. You and your friends can set up a society--essentially a social hub where you coordinate tournaments and create your own seasons--and compete for the long haul. Ahead of launch, I wasn't able to test out the online features, but Online Societies was one of the cooler sports game modes in recent memory in The Golf Club 2019, and PGA Tour 2K21 has an official society to join right out of the gate to compete against the whole community. The use of VC in Online Societies seems a tad more questionable, with tournament entry fees, membership fees, and even donations to the society. Solo Societies, which had let you play custom seasons against the CPU, is sadly missing in PGA Tour 2K21, leaving players who prefer to play solo left with the PGA Tour season as their main game mode.
PGA Tour 2K21 improves on the mostly stellar foundation of The Golf Club series, offering the most realistic and pure golf experience in a game to date. There are still some minor annoyances that can temporarily take you out of the experience, but it offers a closer approximation of the actual PGA Tour schedule and a relaxing, streamlined approach to MyPlayer. For the most part, PGA Tour 2K21 admirably captures the peculiar magic of the game of golf.