It's been quite some time since golf fans have been spoiled for choice. EA has dominated one of the worlds most regal games for more than a decade and those who play games on a PC in particular have been left with little to no choice in how they hit the links. Enter The Golf Club, a new Golf simulator from HB studios that doesn't boast PGA licensing or tons of product placement, but it does offer a massive game changing feature that is sure to land in the fairway with most virtual golfers: a course editor. Instead of shelling out absurd sums of money for new courses players now have access to a surprisingly robust course creation tool with Greg Norman's name slapped across it. So does The Golf Club burst on the scene like Tiger Woods circa 1997 or does it choke like Sergio Garcia on Sunday at a major?
Without PGA licensing, The Golf Club feels more like a virtual golf outing with friends than a tense and competitive sports simulation. There isn't a character creator, no RPG like leveling or character progression, no unlockables nor upgrades. The Golf Club also doesn't offer any alternative modes like challenges or mini games. You simply pick a course or a tournament and hit the links. Asynchronous play is generally the preferred play mode if you don't have good buddies available for eighteen since it allows brisk competitive play. Your competitors strokes are shown as you take your own and minimal load times keep the pace up and reduces the tedium present in other golf titles. A generic announcer provides the only semblance of professional golf tournament ambiance since galleries of spectators, scoreboards and tournament sponsor signs are all absent from the game's courses. The announcer does a decent job of reacting to your shots and making accurate assessments of the conditions on the course, but his personality is on par with a rusty, dinged-up pitching wedge. It's a shame that HB studios didn't utilize the freedom of not being a PGA licensed product to offer some more festive commentary a la Gary McCord at the 1994 Masters Tournament.
The Golf Club's bare bones feature set and lack of atmosphere and ambiance are not it's most prominent offense however, its the fact that the actual golf mechanics feel woefully underdeveloped. The game seems to favor a grip it and rip it mentality as any attempt I made to be clever with my shots ended in utter disaster with the exception of the instances in which the game decided to make some sort of idiotic club selection—teeing off on a par five with an 8-iron for instance. Speaking of club selection a clunky interface makes proper club selection tedious. Players must enter the scout camera mode to see where their ball may end up with a solid shot and if players wish to see where a different club might place the ball, the scout mode needs to be exited and a new club selection needs to be made. Spinning the ball or controlling draw or fade is slightly awkward with a shot modifier that needs to be dialed in before making a stroke. There is also very little feedback when trying to control the strength of your shots. Taking a few yards off of a stroke becomes an exercise in frustration since the difference between 70% and 100% power is a millimeter of travel on the analog stick and there are no meters or other visual indicators to allow players to get a feel for it. If there is another way to modify the strength of your shots I could not find it and a tutorial was not provided. The game's bare bones approach also means that you are stuck with a fixed club selection so don't expect to carry a hybrid or a long iron in place of your five wood.
Thankfully, the course editor in The Golf Club does not disappoint. Offering desert, links, alpine, rural and autum tile sets and a wide array of props, the course editor easily allows players to build realistic courses with few limitations. A number of sliders that populate the world with vegetation, water and hills automates some of the more tedious aspects of design. Bridges, wildlife, structures and props allow you to breathe life into each hole and imbue your course with some personality. Editing can be done hole by hole or freely across the entire course. Coupled with the game's mostly pleasing visuals it's exciting to turn your vision into a virtual reality and then share it with the world. It's just a shame that the frame rate can be slower than the senior tour—even on powerful hardware.
The Golf Club brings to mind all of those 1990's home designer software packages available in most electronics stores. Teeing off in The Golf Club is underwhelming but creating courses is any golf fan's dream. The actual golf is a bit clunky and in need of a swing coach with it's poor feedback, lack of club selection, and cumbersome UI. The lack of atmosphere and character progression do little to incentivize actually playing the game. While The Golf Club hasn't quite passed Q School, it's not entirely irredeemable. With so few choices for PC gamers, The Golf Club is worth considering for serious golf fans, those on consoles have a little more to consider but the course creator is quite compelling. In the end, The Golf Club logs a bogey on the score card.