Better Than Most...
A look back at the Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf series, from a sports video game fan who's played them all.
One of the standout reasons why I recently decided to reacquire an Xbox 360 was to revisit the Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf games for the platform. While I’m not a golfer in any way, shape, or form in reality… I do really enjoy golf video games, and this series has always been fun for me to play.
Tiger’s rapid rise to superstardom led to a deal with Electronic Arts for using his name and likeness for its PGA Tour Golf games, which had been in a bit of a rut prior to the deal. After the excellent PGA Tour Golf games on the SEGA Genesis, the move to the next generation of consoles was rough. PGA Tour Golf 96 was fairly rudimentary, with just three courses and a new kind of three-click swing meter. PGA Tour Golf 97 and PGA Tour Golf 98 were largely more of the same, with incremental improvements. The hope was that Tiger’s endorsement and likeness would attract new fans to the games.
For the rest of the original PlayStation era, though… and even into the start of the following generation of consoles, the series remained pretty flat. There were interesting ideas, such as the implementation of an analog stick-driven golf swing, but the games still felt stodgy and uninspired. Contrast this to other sports that Electronic Arts had been keying on, like the Madden NFL series, the NHL series, and its rising star in the NBA LIVE series, and it was evident that changes were needed.
Then came Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2002, which was the first sign of desperately-needed change.
Electronic Arts secured CBS golf commentators Bill Macatee and David Feherty for the game, and revamped progression. The game revolves around the Tiger Challenge— a series of events pitting the player against other PGA Tour pros or specially-created characters over the game’s six courses. Players accumulate cash for feats like long drives, greens in regulation, and under-par scoring for each hole played. This cash is used to grow the golfer’s stats in areas like Power, Accuracy, Spin, and more. It’s a progression that keeps players coming back to build their golfers into phenoms and inevitably challenge Tiger for greatness. The game looks good, runs smoothly, and has an attitude about it that draws players in. Tiger 2002 is nowhere near the best game in the series, but it marks an important turning point. From here, the next three titles in the series build from the foundation set in this game.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2004 is notable for adding a Season Mode for the first time. Before this game, players could participate in various tournaments and events, but without the structure of a week-to-week season. This addition, combined with a revamped Tiger Challenge mode called World Tour, sets players up with dozens of hours of gameplay. Players can still upgrade their golfers’ skills, but can now equip them with various licensed gear— some of which can also improve stats. The game’s course list sits at 19, comprised of a mixture of real-life PGA courses and fantasy courses designed by Electronic Arts. Other improvements include special events driven by the console’s internal clock, the debut of Gary McCord in the commentary booth (who has awesome chemistry with David Feherty), and the one-time use of something called the EA Sports Bio— a program that scans memory cards or hard drives for other EA Sports games and offers special rewards based on progression in those games. While Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2005 expands on this game by adding a few more wrinkles (like the option to “Tigerproof” courses to make make them harder and the ability to use “Tiger Vision” to line up putts for almost automatic success rates), Tiger 2004 is the game that set many standards for the series moving forward.
Unfortunately, after Tiger 2005, the series stagnated again. With the transition to another new generation— the first generation of high-definition consoles— came growing pains. Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 06 and 07 are examples of going through the motions. It’s not that the games are bad, but that they’re quite average and show no real sign of evolution or change after seeing so much happen in years prior. EA was struggling with this transition in most of its sports games on the HD side, to be fair. Madden NFL and NBA LIVE weren’t in much better shape on the new consoles, though Madden still thrived on the older PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 08 shook the series out of its HD doldrums. It is a much more difficult game than its predecessors, which is why many more pure golf fans like it. Tiger 08 also brings back the three-click swing from older games in the series, which some may prefer if they haven’t mastered the analog swing. The Tiger Challenge is deeper than ever before, and the PGA Tour Season Mode is rewarding. An interesting addition— which was only in this game— is Shot Confidence. Tiger 08 tracks every shot on every hole and uses this information to determine a golfer’s confidence level. Keeping shots in the fairway, making sand saves, and keeping putt numbers low build confidence… but missing the fairway, errant shots, and hitting the ball from sand trap to sand trap will lower that confidence. It’s a factor that affects a player’s performance in subtle ways, and it’s a neat touch.
Unlike Tiger 2002 or 2004, though, games that came after Tiger 08 didn’t build on this one’s foundation. In fact, EA blew it all up and started over for the next year.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 09 was a new beginning. The commentary team is different. The Shot Confidence feature is gone. The presentation is changed. Players now get their start by auditioning for Hank Haney, who was Tiger’s coach at the time. This serves as the game’s tutorial as well as a starting point for created golfers to set their opening skill stats. Those skill stats are dynamically affected by player performance, increasing or decreasing based on various performance metrics (like drive distance, fairways and greens in regulation, approach distance to the hole, and more). What’s more, after each round, player can spend time increasing their skill stats by participating in drills based on holes that were challenging. Though I’m not a fan of the new commentary team, I find Tiger 09 (and Tiger 10, which is generally the same thing but with even more commentary change and a few other tweaks) to be fairly enjoyable.
The addition of a Focus meter for Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 11 makes it a divisive game. The Focus meter is kind of like a fuel tank for using arcade-like staples in the series, like adding power or spin to a golf shot. Some players find this to be a good balancing feature, to prevent Golden Tee-levels of low scoring. Others (myself included) don’t like it as it’s too limiting and breaks what isn’t broken, since adding power and spin is optional. The game does also add the Ryder Cup as an event, though it’s not given the gravitas that the event really deserves given its importance in the game of golf. Kelly Tilghman and Scott Van Pelt return from Tiger 10 to deliver commentary… and it’s not great. Again. It’s flat and uninspired. Not that golf is overly exciting, but the commentary here seems so out of place and inconsistent. Despite its flaws, it’s still better than Tiger 06 and 07, but this game marked a fork in the road for the series at the time. Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 12 needed to be something special, as fans were growing restless with questionable and generally lackluster evolution since Tiger 09.
And, boy, is Tiger 12 special. In fact, it may be the most important game in the series since Tiger 04. Why? Two words: Augusta National.
For the first time ever in EA’s PGA Tour Golf series history, the unthinkable happened: Augusta National Golf Club, home of the The Masters, was in the game for the first time. To quote the great Jim Nantz (who I’ll come back to shortly), having the “tradition unlike any other” in a golf game instantly raises interest and credibility. Very few golfers have had the chance to play a round at Augusta National, let alone participate in The Masters itself. It’s a fantastic setpiece to have in a golf game, and EA is careful to give Augusta National and The Masters the reverent treatment that both have come to expect. This includes employing the services of the voice of the Masters, Jim Nantz himself, as lead commentator. David Feherty makes his return to the PGA Tour Golf series for the first time since Tiger 08, albeit in a much more subdued state than his usual funny self. Hearing Nantz call the action adds a sense of authenticity, and he does a very nice job with reading his lines with credible emotion and intensity.
The improvements in Tiger 12 don’t stop there. Caddies now play an interesting role in the game, assisting golfers with shot aim and club selection, as well as reading greens. Each of the game’s courses have levels of mastery, based on achieving certain metrics on each (like a certain number of birdies or greens in regulation). Career Mode has been completed revamped, and now golfers must earn their way onto the PGA Tour by starting out at amateurs and progressing through Q School in order to get their Tour cards and compete against the best of the best. This type of Career Mode set the standard for the series’ final two games that followed this one, and it is the most engaging Career Mode since the PGA Tour Season Mode was first introduced in Tiger 04. Masters Moments allow players to attempt to recreate (or even better) classic situations in the history of the tournament.
All told, Tiger 12 is a great package, honing what was good from previous games while adding new and important features. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 and 14 would refine what Tiger 12 did so well, while making a few changes along the way. Tiger 13 adds Country Clubs for players to join, so they can compare their stats, play against other members, and raise the ranking of the club just by playing the game. Tiger 13 also adds a Tiger Legacy mode, which lets players recreate Tiger’s timeline in golf from when he was a wee lad to his greatness on the PGA Tour. This mode, sadly, isn’t great… but it’s a neat idea, anyway. Tiger 14, the final game in the series, enhances presentation to show off some interesting and relevant stats between holes. Tiger Legacy is replaced by The Legends of the Masters, featuring some of the game’s absolute best, like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. All told, this trilogy of games is, to me, a great way for the long-running series to end.
There is a caveat to these later games, though, and it’s one that got increasingly more difficult to ignore. Downloadable content (DLC) and microtransactions do rear their ugly heads, especially from Tiger 12 on. Tiger 12 offers 16 courses on its base disc, which is fine. However, an additional 20 courses lurk via DLC and cannot be acquired any longer. If players didn’t buy these courses when they were available, they’re lost to history. What’s more, Tiger 12 uses these DLC courses in its PGA Tour seasons… so if players don’t have these courses, they’re forced to skip that event. Tiger 13 offers a half-hearted attempt to fix this by letting players use accumulated coins to play DLC courses and unlock them through course mastery, but this is incredibly grindy. Buying Collector’s Editions of Tiger 12, Tiger 13, and Tiger 14 each contains some of these DLC courses on the disc, but the rest of these courses are no longer available. In fact, some courses I bought previously aren’t even accessible anymore.
Electronic Arts did not renew its contract with Tiger Woods after Tiger 14. Tiger’s marital troubles and damaged reputation made him a toxic figure in the endorsement game, and there was a sense that new direction was needed for the upcoming new generation of consoles in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. EA would tab Rory McIlroy for its next PGA Tour Golf game. Unfortunately, the game released in a relatively barren and buggy state. Augusta National didn’t renew its deal with EA, so that course, and The Masters tournament, were gone. The course selection was fairly weak. The Career Mode felt uninspired. Jim Nantz and David Feherty were replaced by Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo in the commentary booth. The look of the game, running on the Frostbite Engine, wasn’t great. The game was perceived to be a flop, and it was the final PGA Tour Golf game to be released by EA… ending a run of 20+ years.
The Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf series is a series of golf video games— not necessarily golf simulations— which appealed to wider audiences parallel to the popularity of the man whose name and photo were featured on the case art. Purists will often criticize the games for not being realistic enough or being too “arcade-like”. There are times, especially as golfer stats improve, that the games become too easy. I am a fan of these easier-to-play games, a style emulated closely by Microsoft’s Links 2004 for the original Xbox, and games in the Hot Shots or Everybody’s Golf series for PlayStation platforms that aren’t licensed by the PGA Tour but are still a blast to play anyway. I admit that I was caught up in the Tiger Woods hype at first, but it was the underlying gameplay and content that continually won me over as a player year after year after year… and has won me back after a lengthy layoff, leading to the creation of even more fond gameplay memories and achievements.
When I look back at the history of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf series, the timeline is similar to that of a golfer on the tour. It started slowly, but picked up momentum over time thanks to changes in the game that made it more competitive. There were dominant stretches, periods of regression or stagnation, times of tinkering that either worked or didn’t work, and more. There are big wins (Tiger 04-05, Tiger 08, Tiger 12-14), a few losses (Tiger 06-07, Tiger 11), and results in-between. As a fan of sports video games, I can honestly say that this series, collectively as a sum of its parts, qualifies for my personal Hall of Fame.