Tiger Woods' name may be on the cover of the latest iteration of Electronic Arts' PGA Tour series, but the famously troubled golfer isn't the game's star. That honour goes to Augusta National, a course widely recognized as one of the finest clubs in the world and which plays host to the prestigious Masters tournament.
Indeed, the game all but revolves around both Augusta and the storied competition that has attracted the globe's best golfers annually since 1934. The primary career mode is organized as a journey through qualifying school and several tours with the grand goal of competing in the Masters. A secondary mode has players trying to recreate some of the tournament's most memorable performances, such as Gary Player's blistering final back nine that led him to his third championship in 1978.
The upshot is that you'll find yourself spending a lot of time on Augusta's renowned real estate, and you probably won't be disappointed by what you see. The course is extraordinarily well captured, with famous holes like the short but devilish par three 12th and the round-making (or destroying) par five 15th looking-and playing-just as you'd imagine.
It's also one of the most difficult courses that Electronic Arts has ever simulated-and not just because of its treacherous greens and sadistically placed hazards. The game automatically removes any clothing or equipment bonuses you may have added when you play in the Masters Moments mode, and when you finally arrive at the tournament proper in the career mode you'll find yourself prohibited from using some of the game's most frequently used special abilities, such as power boosts and real time spin control. The upshot is that each green hit is earned, each birdie a satisfying accomplishment.
But we're not left to face Augusta completely disarmed. The other star of the game (sorry, Tiger, still not you) is a caddy who proudly wears your name on the back of his shirt.
Every stroke leading up to the green begins with your caddy providing one or more shot options. On a hole with dual-fairway he might suggest letting one rip down the more risky of the two straightaways while also offering a safer play with a 3-iron down the clearer side. On a par three with a tight pin he'll likely provide an option that lets you attack the flag, but recommend that you cut the risk and pop it onto the fat part of the green for an easy two-putt par. If you select one of his options, all you have to do is swing the club the recommended speed. Flight path, spin, lie, wind, and elevation have already been taken into consideration.
He's not perfect. The options he provides-especially around the green, where he seems averse to offering chips and pitches that will result in simple tap-ins-are often best left ignored. But he's fine with players choosing their own way. Sometimes he even recommends it.
Plus, he learns. As you master each of the game's courses by fulfilling objectives, such as hitting a certain number of fairways and scoring birdies on particular hole types, he begins to better understand the course and offers more rewarding shots, such as low-lofted hooks around trees on short doglegs and tricky flop shots that take a green's undulations out of play.
As a once avid real-world golfer and a 20-year veteran of EA's franchise, I'll admit that I haven't had much use for my caddy. I use his suggestions occasionally, and they generally work out as predicted, but I'm experienced enough that I typically prefer to call my own shots and tweak them as necessary.
That said, I've no doubt that he will prove quite useful to franchise rookies and those players who enjoy the sport but aren't necessarily familiar with its quirks. If you're the kind of golfer who doesn't know what to expect from a ball lying below your feet and on a downward slope, the caddy could be a godsend.
Outside of Augusta and the caddy, the rest of the game is about what you'd expect. A couple of pre-shot set-up tweaks aside, the mechanics are more or less the same as in previous iterations, as are the online modes and the avatar generator and pro shop modules.
Predictably, EA is still looking for ways to siphon cash from consumers via incremental sales. Particularly egregious is that I was unable to enter one of the first PGA tournaments I encountered because I didn't have access to the golf course on which it was played-this despite having coughed up an extra $10 for the Collector's Edition to gain access to extra courses. The game demanded I either pay $7 more to purchase this one course or skip the event entirely. Apparently someone forgot to tell EA that golf is a gentleman's game, and that gentlemen don't sucker punch their clients.
Golf nuts like me end up picking up each annual edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour regardless of how few changes might have been made. Thanks to the addition of Augusta and the new caddy system, this edition feels more distinct than most, but it's not a brand new game. Weekend warriors who bought last year's edition or even the previous year's game can probably skip this one.
However, if you've been away from the franchise for a while or have never played, it's certainly worth consideration, if only to be able to experience for yourself the difficulty in going eagle, birdie, birdie on Augusta's 15th through 17th, as Jack Nicklaus did on a Sunday in 1986 on his way to a one-stroke Masters victory and his sixth career green jacket.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Windows PC
Developer/Publisher: EA Sports