I’ve played plenty of video game golf over the years, from Links 386 Pro on my first family PC (yes, I’m old) to Links 2004 on the original Xbox to Tiger Woods PGA Tour in the Xbox 360 days. A good golf sim has always been as chill and enjoyable with friends as the real-life sport is. But my virtual set of clubs, just like the real-life set sitting in my garage, have been gathering dust for years. So the fact that I was able to jump right into PGA Tour 2K23 and feel at home with both its three-click swing and swing stick control options during my two-hour hands-on session, then, was a testament to developer HB Studios: it’s really easy to pick up and have fun with even if you haven’t played the video game version of the sport in a while.
This isn’t to say that PGA Tour 2K23 is an easy game – or an arcade-y one. Sure, you can customize the experience however you like, turning assists and difficulties up and down to suit your taste. But it’s got everything you’d want here to enhance realism, from shot shaping on the links to character customization in the locker room to skill upgrades for your custom MyPlayer.
I started with a quick round of Top Golf, the video game version of the real-life driving range game that, in fact, does feel like it was cribbed from a video game. This gave me a feel for 2K23’s default three-click swing system. Aside from the 10mph wind affecting the ball more than I’d expected, it served as a good way to get acclimated with this year’s game. After that it was off to try and recreate my nerdy self in MyPlayer, and despite feeling rushed due to my limited time with the game, MyPlayer did an amicable job of creating a quick and dirty version of my real-life radio face. The player creator lets you tweak everything from jaw depth to cheek roundness and beyond. You also set your golfer’s archetype and spend your initial skill point.
I played a round of 18 against a field that included my chosen pro rival, Rickie Fowler, on the fictional Craggy Heights course, though HB Studios promises over 20 real-life courses as well as player-created ones. Navigating around the course will be familiar to any golf-sim veterans, and the aforementioned swing control types both work great. The three-button-click approach punishes poor timing with shots that slice or fade, while swing stick users will suffer the same fate if they skew their backswing or follow-through off-center in either direction. On the green, meanwhile, you get a grid overlay showing the direction of the slopes, and you also get a one-time putt preview by holding down the X button. It will feel instantly familiar to old Links and Tiger Woods players.
In fact, HB Studios told me that the Xbox’s Links 2004 was an “oft-referenced” game at the studio during the development of 2K23, and based on how easily I was able to get comfortable with it, I’m inclined to believe them. I finished atop the leaderboard after my round, easily besting my PGA Tour pro rival and racking up a slew of birdies in the process. I only missed out on a couple of eagles because I botched an easy putt or two.
I headed into the locker room to spend my earned XP on some new duds, and allocate the Fittings I’d unlocked as well. These are item-specific bonuses that can be swapped out as you choose, like rings on your Diablo character. I also earned enough to level up as well, meaning I had another skill point to spend. To this end, HB Studios is promising loads of situational skills that, for instance, can be activated for the next hole. That will certainly spice up the gameplay if it works as described, though I didn’t get to try it out for myself.
Still, I think 2K and HB Studios stand a good chance of attracting a lot of people like me – lapsed players of EA’s Tiger Woods games. In fact, given that it’s called PGA Tour and has Tiger on the cover, some of the more casual gamer-dads may pick this up not even realizing that it's a different game from a different publisher. Thus, it's up to HB to make sure it's a really good game that makes them want to come back again next year. So far, they seem to be off to a great start.