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A golfer raises the Claret Jug trophy, winning the British Open, in EA Sports PGA Tour

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EA Sports PGA Tour’s best mode pulled me back into my golfing game obsession

It’s the best practice mode before taking on 18-hole rounds with new surface physics and shots

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

It’s been a decade since Augusta National Golf Course was in a video game, and eight years since we saw St. Andrews on a console. Just going back to these places will be enough for most fans interested in EA Sports PGA Tour — especially following Jon Rahm’s win at the Masters Tournament this past weekend. But the game, now on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X, does play a little differently. So they should factor in some time to get familiar before gorging on its buffet of 30 bucket list destinations.

The best way to do so? Honestly, it’s the Challenges mode. Golf doesn’t really need to be reduced to bite-size challenges for video games — it is bite-size challenges, 18 of them making up a round. But the Challenges mode quickly became EA Sports PGA Tour’s signature feature for me, at least in the first week, for how it familiarized me with the tasks these courses will expect later in my (very deep) career mode. I wasn’t prepared to appreciate or enjoy this live-service vehicle as much as I did, but absent a practice facility or tutorial in the video game, I absolutely depended on it to, as they say, get back in the swing of things.

Challenges takes players to one of the game’s 30 courses and gives them three tasks to complete, replicating some performance from real life — for example, Lexi Thompson at the 2019 LPGA Championship or Francesco Molinari making recovery after recovery at the Masters the same year. Each challenge awards three stars, those stars award XP and Reward Points, and those two collectively progress your created golfer or give them cool new skills and cosmetics. (Although the latter are unlocked through a prominent in-game store menu, it’s important to note that nothing affecting a created golfer’s play or improving their game can be bought for a real-money equivalent. That’s all for cosmetics.)

You don’t have to complete all three obligations of a challenge in the same playthrough, either; this is what I meant about Challenges supporting repeated attempts. If one challenge is, say, to make green-in-regulation on all four holes (that is, landing on the green in par minus two strokes) and make birdie on two of them, you can focus on sticking the greens in one playthrough and getting the birdies in another.

This isn’t to suggest that the challenges aren’t demanding. It took me a couple of hours to clean up the Thursday and Friday moments from this year’s Masters. Some of that was my unfamiliarity with this game’s controls after eight years since the last EA Sports golf game. But some of it, also, was because the surfaces and ball lies are truer to life and therefore more difficult to play — which should be the point of a simulation, after all.

The green of No. 15 at Augusta National — sorry to keep referring back to this course, but I have a feeling a lot of people are playing it right now — is a notorious real-life challenge for tour pros. It’s definitely in range for a chance at an eagle. In previous games, I never had to worry about overshooting this green or rolling my recovery long all the way into the water hazard. Now I do, which makes the decision to lay up at 15, and take a shorter approach to the green, a lot more meaningful. Now I know a little more of what was going through Chip Beck’s mind at the 1993 Masters.

EA Sports PGA Tour is as lavishly illustrated as ever; it’s the strongest trait so far of a golf simulation that will take a lot of playing and replaying to truly understand. The best way to see the 30 courses on the disc are, again, in the bite-size play offered by the Challenges mode. For some courses, like Pebble Beach, or Augusta, or TPC Sawgrass, I have a thing about waiting to play my first full round there until it’s an event on my created player’s career calendar. Of course, I want them to go into that prepared, and not embarrass themselves, so these warmups are a nice way to keep that personal tradition intact while still bringing a talented virtual golfer to the tee.

Jordan Spieth recovering from a greenside bunker in EA Sports PGA Tour Image: EA Orlando/Electronic Arts

The features serving that golfer are a little uneven. While there are plenty of cosmetics and unlockables (and the promise of more) to kit them out, the character creator itself is very rigid. Different genders and many ethnicities are represented, but don’t expect them to look much like you, as the faces come from stock templates. This has been a long-running weakness of EA Sports titles, especially compared to their contemporaries. In Career, however, there is the chance to play in AI pairings, which, while a little time consuming, is there for those who favor full-fat, immersive sports experiences (like me). And for those who truly want to sink into an immersive career, you can start all the way back as an amateur — including in the newly created (2019) Augusta National Women’s Amateur. These are experiences I look forward to recreating over the next several dozen hours (if not 100) that I can devote to the game.

For many, the selling point of EA Sports PGA Tour is simply the ability to play these courses in a video game; it sounds like a low standard, but rendering them faithfully takes a ton of effort, and EA Sports’ developers still exceeded my expectations. The broadcast presentation supporting these visits is crisp and attentive, feathering in little touches like the walk over the Sarazen Bridge at that No. 15 hole now giving me so much trouble. Returning players and new ones alike should expect to put in plenty of time working on their game, however, before they’re confident taking on the likes of Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits. But that’s an essential part of the challenge, and appeal, of golf.

EA Sports PGA Tour launched April 7 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Electronic Arts. 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.