I’ve played about 200 holes of The Golf Club 2019 and I’m vexed to explain why this game, nor its two predecessors, hasn’t grabbed hold of me as it has for so many other sports video gamers. Ordinarily, it takes little encouragement for me to blow hours on a golf video game, especially one with a career mode. But with The Golf Club 2019, the urge simply is not there.
It bothers me because this game has a sizable fan base that can’t be diminished as a cult or similar following. And now the series has added at least the promotional and publishing muscle of 2K Sports. But the gameplay is only moderately more scrutable than its 2014 forebear, and the visuals I saw in the Xbox One version I played do little to highlight the inclusion of real world courses and the PGA Tour.
The Golf Club 2019 is, like the two games before it, an acquired taste, meaning no offense to those who have acquired it. There are many. But still I barely feel connected to my shot’s execution. To set up a shot in The Golf Club 2019 is to be given a point on a map with no idea how to reach it. A shot’s strength is determined by how far back you draw on the stick, watching the club in the player’s backswing and determining when to push forward. Strength is always determined in five-percent increments. There’s no meter, no other clue that tells me, OK, I am a third, halfway, three-quarters through my swing. I felt like the precision expected in the most ordinary of approaches was unreasonable for the lack of information I was given as I swung the club.
The lack of information extends to the overview as I was setting up the shot. The user is given no idea what percentage of swing is necessary to reach a point shorter than the white circle representing the limit of that club’s power. The targeting circle only moves laterally, not deeper or shallower. A shot directly at the pin will need a lot of room to roll on The Golf Club 2019’s flagstone-like greens. I sometimes went down two clubs from the one suggested when that useless white circle was positioned over the hole. This adds up to a game that is played by feel — that’s fine, so is real golf — but it requires a lot of practice, muscle memory and trial and error that I found frustrating and exhausting.
This is a basic obligation that players of this series have long since accepted. And I agree that other simulation-style golf video games have larded up the assists and targeting options to the point it can feel like calling in a pinpoint airstrike with a button press, robbing the moment of a meaningful challenge. But the almost willful disconnect between me and my shot in The Golf Club 2019 is just as off-putting to me as it was in the original. Considering how drastically my shots could be affected by subtle variances in wind, sidehill lie and ground cover, would it kill the game to show me the arc of a perfectly hit ball — knowing that I won’t hit it perfectly — just so I have some picture in my mind as I adjust draw, fade and loft?
Nearly every approach shot I hit in The Golf Club 2019 lies between the distances of two clubs or requires some variance in its trajectory. Again, that’s fine, most real shots do. But only about a tenth of the shot-shaping graph is actually useful. Two ticks in any direction for fade or draw is enough to take it dangerously close to a straight-up hook or slice. I was constantly guessing what would be a reasonable loft to try to get a short iron approach to stop. I always guessed wrong, as it either rolled off the maddening, slate-hard greens, or splatted in a greenside bunker.
The calling card of The Golf Club franchise is its course creation suite, which has generated thousands of user-built links and greatly extended the game’s value and replayability. That suite is as robust as ever in the latest version, but I simply don’t have the time necessary to design anything other than a templatized 18-hole course with some tinkering to the foliage and number of bunkers. There’s a lot of depth in the tools but I was blundering through the user interface experimentally rather than really knowing what I was doing. That’s fine; the game’s hardcore following has supplied more than enough good courses to download.
Career modes are more where I spend my time, especially in golf, but The Golf Club’s barebones treatment of the one (1) golfer you get (the created one attached to your account) robs the career of plenty of its meaning. It’s basically a schedule of events, some with real world branding. To the best of my reckoning, there’s no means of ranking up the created golfer, developing one area of their game and forsaking another. (There are three club variabilities, and while you can hit longer distances with the higher clubs, deviations in swing accuracy are punished more harshly.)
The six TPC courses (and their corresponding real life events) that come with the PGA’s license are a nice inclusion and a worthy reward for both HB Studios and those who have stuck with them. But to be blunt, this looks like a game that was designed in Unity, on my Xbox One anyway. That dulls the impact of having recognizable, real life locations, like No. 17’s “Island Green” at TPC Sawgrass. Environmental objects’ pop-in was constant and close in. I often saw gray ground cover on the hillsides behind a green, for example, and the distinctly last-generation player models are bug-eyed and near-lifeless in their variety of animations. Textures frequently lacked definition and surface variances didn’t have enough visual contrast, which made it difficult to tell, for example, that I’d landed my ball on the false front of a green and that’s why it rolled off. I would feel more incentive to learn a more demanding form of video game golf if the visuals approached the same standard of realism.
And The Golf Club 2019 is a game that needs a lot of trial and error. By about the seventh or eighth round, I could start to feel myself building a muscle memory for 12-foot putts and the wedges and the shorter iron shots. But I was still making eight birdies in a round with just three under par to show for it. New players should put in a lot of time on the practice range to develop their familiarity with the intangible swing strength. At least out there, the game shows you a shot arc that apparently is such an extravagance out in the real game.
The confounding rolls and bounces opposite a ball’s momentum also do their best to remind the user of the Unity physics driving this thing. The Golf Club’s longtime players have since compensated for or forgiven this. But with the PGA Tour branding and the 2K Sports affiliation, there are going to be a lot of newcomers who find what is still more of a boutique alternative to big-budget, big-publisher golf as opposed to the full replacement they may be expecting.