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After a poor tee shot, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour makes a valiant recovery

More courses soothe the early disappointment in an otherwise strong-playing game of golf

EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

With the wind at your back — an 8 mph breeze is plenty enough — and a proper attribute boost equipped, you can rip a 400-yard drive on the first tee at Oakmont Country Club, the latest course introduced to Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. The downhill fairway will roll the ball within 60 yards of the pin's Thursday placement.

And from there, it's just an easy wedge shot to your first bogey of the day.

Even from 60 yards, any approach to Oakmont's inscrutably tough greens will skitter and slide like a one-legged bobcat trying to cover his crap on a frozen pond. Oakmont is one of major tournament golf's most difficult courses, and it is the last of six that EA Sports promised to deliver for free to Rory McIlroy PGA Tour by the end of this month.

Arriving in a title update March 8, Oakmont is an appropriate finish to a redemptive second-round performance for EA Tiburon's designers, in how it showcases the promise of Rory McIlroy PGA Tour and explains why it took nearly a year after launch for the game to fulfill it.

"On the old Tiger Woods game, every course played the same," said Justin Patel, a longtime veteran of EA's golf operation and a lead designer on this title. By this Patel means that a ball struck under the same conditions, onto the same surface on one course, would behave exactly the same way on any other.

That meant Oakmont, a links course featuring wide-open views and no water hazards, was one of the easiest courses in 2013's Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 despite being one of the hardest in North America for nearly a century. The U.S. Open returns to Oakmont this June.

But what about The Masters?

The Masters begins April 7 and, no, there is no news, no tease, nothing to share that suggests that event or its course could make any kind of a surprise return to EA Sports' golf simulation after its run from 2011 to 2013. I asked executive producer Brent Nielsen, and he replied with a blanket no-comment.

Last spring, when it became apparent Augusta would not be featured in Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, an EA Sports representative still left open the possibility that it could be added later. This more falls under the never-say-never end of an ongoing cordial relationship than it suggests any license negotiations are actually in play. But who knows.

When Augusta National Golf Club left, a former EA Sports rep who worked closely with the game mentioned to me that the deal between the two was one of the more unusual licensing arrangements ever in sports video gaming, and I believe it. For starters, Augusta doesn't need anyone's money, so it can't be induced to participate with a huge check alone.

It's also a private club, meaning it has no need for publicity or "brand awareness" and has literally no obligation to the public. It's a single course and event, not the custodian of an entire sport, like a league. Finally, despite the notoriety of The Masters, Augusta notoriously curbs the commercialization of the tournament and its course. This is a spectator event that still sells $3 beer and sandwiches, after all. If you can't attend, watch it in three weeks; the only TV show CBS gets to plug is 60 Minutes if the final round runs long.

Bottom line, if Augusta does not want to participate in a video game — and given its ties to Tiger Woods, it may have lost interest once he left the franchise — there aren't many appeals EA Sports can make to convince it otherwise.

"With the per-course physics we have now, we're able to make the greens at Oakmont behave like the greens at Oakmont," Patel said. "You might learn how to putt at PGA West, but when the green speed changes, the break of the putt changes, and that is another exponential layer of difficulty to the game."

This kind of fidelity was possible thanks to the power of the new consoles and the new engine Tiburon would be using. But it would also require completely remaking every course. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 had more than 40 courses, 20 on the disc and the rest sold digitally, and none of that data was usable for the Rory McIlroy PGA Tour reboot, Patel said.

"All those old courses were built in 18 separate environments," Patel said, meaning that each hole was a discrete file. In Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, all 18 holes of a course are rendered together, on a single layout. "It would have been a lot more of an effort to go into our old assets, pull out those holes and paste them together," Patel said.

"Even putting aside the licensing," executive producer Brent Nielsen said, "all of those courses needed to be recreated from scratch. It was a mountain of work to get through." The first course Nielsen's team finished, TPC Sawgrass, took a very long time because designers were learning to work with Frostbite, an engine that powers EA shooters like Star Wars Battlefront and the Battlefield series. Subsequent courses took less time as artists became more familiar. Still, the work could be measured in months.

EA Sports' golf franchise has long featured a roster of real-world golfers, but its real stars have always been the courses, and there was nowhere near enough time to create enough that lived up to the expectations set by Tiger Woods 14 two years before. Tiburon's golf staff knew this. As early as a year from Rory McIlroy's July 2015 launch date, they had made plans to develop and parcel out additional courses post-release.

Still, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, despite the fidelity of its swing mechanisms, ball flight and course physics, would be torn to pieces by reviewers — including me — for launching with so few venues in which to try it all out.

"We knew that there were going to be people calling out the fact that there wasn't 1-to-1 feature parity with the last Tiger Woods game, and that these people would not realize this was because of a move to an entirely new engine," Nielsen said. "I wouldn't say that it came as a shock."

Internally, an EA rep told me after the reviews published that they expected the worst, for the small course lineup, for the absence of game types and, significantly for a game where most play as themselves, the dearth of player customization options.

As disappointing as these supporting features were — and in some cases still are — it would be a lot different story if they surrounded a pedestrian game of golf. Despite the reviews and the comments and the forum posts, Tiburon from the get-go still believed it had delivered a truer-playing, more interesting and more challenging golf simulation than the Tiger Woods series had ever been.

In a meeting with colleagues who helm EA Sports' other franchises, Nielsen learned that Patrick Soderlund, who as Electronic Arts' vice president of studios is the publisher's top development executive, was preferring to play early builds of Rory McIlroy PGA Tour over all the other projects in EA's pipeline. "Here's a guy who has access to every game that's in development, like Battlefront, and Need for Speed, and he's choosing to play Rory McIlroy PGA Tour with his friends," Nielsen said. "We knew it was a great playing game all along."

Patel, meanwhile, focused on getting word out to the EA golf community that reinforcements would arrive after the game's launch — though this was received as bad news for the game on the disc until the first course, TPC Scottsdale, showed up a month later. It immediately joined the rotation of tour events in the game's career, giving some much needed lift to a core mode of play.

Then came East Lake Golf Club in September, and longtime players took notice. East Lake was another course too easy to be believable in the old Tiger Woods iteration. Its greens weren't differentiated enough in that game to make the course's pack-a-lunch length particularly challenging. In Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, it is. Like Oakmont, East Lake is also a par 70 at more than 7,500 yards. Even with all the indulgences available to video games, East Lake's lone par 5s, Nos. 5 and 10, are not reasonable eagle opportunities.

Oakmont's greens, though, are a breed apart. Patel got a yardage book marked up with the super-secret layout the course superintendent is planning for the 2016 U.S. Open, and EA's environmental artists visited it to take measurements, photographs and collect other materials to put it in the game. Yet Patel still went back to raw footage of past events, watching how putts traveled on the finish of Oakmont's greens — which the club's members still protest are not as fast as everyone complains.

The result is something properly infuriating, especially given Oakmont's placid layout, which lacks bothersome trees or surprise bunkering. Its greens are like the skins underneath a pair of telemark skis, with traction in one direction and slide in the opposite. As most Oakmont greens slope away from the player, hard approach shots will land and roll as if on a mirror. Then when the player turns to hit it back toward the pin, he encounters enough friction to leave it well short, or subject the ball to a wicked break. My best round at Oakmont so far is -1 and I felt like Batman when I got out of there.

church pews oakmont rory mcilroy pga tour golf

Commentators Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo, who have a much better repartee than predecessors Jim Nantz and David Feherty — provided the game serves it up correctly — came back to Florida to record new lines for Oakmont's inclusion. Patel handed Lerner the yardage book and the two gazed at it like a holy text. "Rich asked if they could have the book," Nielsen laughed. "They haven't seen the course since it was renovated." Moreover, what is in this game is exactly what golfers will face at the 2016 U.S. Open. I'm here to say they will have a hell of a time.

Nielsen and Patel were mum if I asked if Rory McIlroy PGA Tour would start changing courses for the three major events licensed to appear in its career mode — the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship. I took that silence as a good sign. In one-off play at Oakmont, Nobilo's dialogue betrays a few lines specific to U.S. Open play; to me that means it's probably coming. Further queries about where the game goes from here were met with upturned palms. I didn't take this as a sign the series is in danger, more that it's because Electronic Arts is a publicly traded company whose fiscal year ends in 10 days, when companies of this type clam up about everything.

"We've seen some of our highest engagement numbers in the weeks when we've released new courses," Patel said, Oakmont's debut two weeks ago being one of them. "More than the numbers we saw in launch week."

EA Sports may have hooked its drive back in July. But, mud in the grooves and grass wound around the hosel, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour has since made a fine recovery.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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