PGA Tour 2K21 is enjoyable. It’s understandable. I’ve set the career mode for full, four-round events, starting out in the feeder tour. I’m looking forward to booking at least 150 hours playing through the game.
The above might sound like damnation by faint praise, but that’s not the case. The Golf Club, the HB Studios simulation series upon which PGA Tour 2K21 is built, has a sizable, sophisticated, and dedicated following that found its demanding shot-making system to be a worthwhile challenge.
But I could never fathom it; I thought something was wrong with me, a professed lover of video game golf. The Golf Club challenged all of my weaknesses, and rewarded few of my strengths, so I rarely revisited it. And I was far from the only one — I got the sense that a lot of other fans were turned off by the huge investment it expected.
It’s evident that PGA Tour 2K21, a fully licensed golf game that 2K Sports is likely hoping draws a mass audience (it’s available on Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One), had to be more forgiving than its spiritual ancestor.
It’s there in the playability concessions PGA Tour 2K21 makes in the player’s display, which now gives me information I consider vital to selecting a shot and meeting a hole’s challenge. There’s a projected shot arc, which shows me the ideal of what I am attempting to hit. There’s a meter beneath my feet, showing me the percentage of strength I will need on my swing to reach my target. And I can find my target, thanks to a shot setup camera that isn’t pointlessly restricted like in the last game, and conforms to what people have played in dozens of other golf titles. There’s even a putt preview (showing the path of a putt before I take it), which is an assist that even I consider to be cheating.
These assists could have erased all traces of The Golf Club, even though they can be turned off individually, had HB Studios built the rest of PGA Tour 2K21 around them. Instead, the old game I found so difficult is now showing me information about some of its trickier parts, but still leaving the execution to me.
PGA Tour 2K21 is, like its predecessor, a game of timing and rhythm that boils down to repeating, and not rushing, a smooth swing — serving up a good gameplay allegory for real-life golf, too. The assists that I find so critical don’t necessarily help my ball get to the green or stay on it; they give me the certainty of knowing that when my shot goes awry, I did something wrong. Moreover, I know what I did wrong, and the game no longer feels arbitrary or punitive.
So what’s different? Swing timing, which is how the game determines whether I hit a ball straight, now applies only to the forward swing. Passing a timing test on the backswing was the most frustrating and inscrutable part of the previous games, leaving me feeling like a duck hook or a wicked slice was caused by a bad dice roll, not my poor execution.
The forward swing timing is still a little prickly, but it can be mastered, even by newcomers or apostates like myself. It took me about eight rounds to finally come in under par for a full 18, and a lot of that was getting a good feel for swing timing on putts, which can roll a disastrously long way on the slightest mistake.
It’s when I slow down, and actually pay attention to the rhythm of my player’s now-uniform backswing — and this is something The Golf Club really wanted me to do — that I get better results.
I reread my review of The Golf Club 2019 and find that just about every complaint I made there has been specifically addressed. And yes, in those early rounds of PGA Tour 2K21, I felt I was playing just as badly as I ever had in The Golf Club 2019.
The difference is that I now felt connected to my shot, and therefore took ownership of those rounds with five birdies in which I still finished 3 over par. My mistakes didn’t feel random, or like my tools kept getting switched out. More importantly, I felt like I was getting better at the game as I played.
With solidly understandable and challenging gameplay supporting it, PGA Tour 2K21 really opens itself up to more golf fans. There are 15 real-world courses (including 10 of the TPC links, the spine of the PGA Tour) available for play; the career mode involves the Korn Ferry developmental tour and a qualifying school, for a full-featured created-golfer experience, with options to play as a man or woman.
The immense library of fictitious and user-created courses also serves up worthy venues with a “now trending” tab. Multiplayer will accommodate any format (stroke, match, four-ball, Stableford, and the like). A progression system unlocks outfits, gear, and bling galore, most of it drawing on real tour brands. And yes, you can spend real money to get this stuff; it’s a 2K Sports title, after all, but player progression is not tied to purchases.
Microtransactions, bland commentary, or previous-generation visuals — all of which exist in PGA Tour 2K21 — might be nettlesome, but cause no more aggravation than an oh-come-on lip-out putt, or a dubious lie inches off of the fairway.
I can forgive all of this in any golf video game, provided that its gameplay connects me to my shot mentally, feels right when I hit it right, and feels wrong when I hit it wrong. And from my first swing in PGA Tour 2K21, which I still hooked left, I knew HB Studios had met that goal.
PGA Tour 2K21 is now available on Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was played on Xbox One using a download code provided by 2K Sports. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.