Real golf doesn’t lack thrills – watching a player sink a delicate chip-in generates no shortage of excitement. But in the context of a video game, it needs some extra energy. A pizazz. An added enthusiasm, even if it’s when browsing a menu, just to keep it from becoming something you can sleepwalk through. PGA Tour 2K23 lacks that. It’s silent, it’s calm, it’s bland, it’s so… proper.

PGA Tour 2K23 (and previously, PGA Tour 2K21) was born of HB Studios’ fanatically accurate simulation The Golf Club, and the change in name hasn’t changed much about the underlying philosophy behind it. The actual shot mechanisms, ball physics, and standard frustration when sinking into a bunker retain their dazzling authenticity, and yet, even with a year off between editions to rethink things, HB Studios has produced another plain, stuffy, elitist golf sim with as much personality as a white polo shirt. 2K23 makes minor strides towards loosening up the pomposity, but lands inches from dropping in the cup.

2K brings the points-based FedEx Cup into focus as the central career goal. That’s fine, although the PGA draws more attention for the Masters, US Open, and other high-profile events – the stuff EA licensed in the past for its golf projects. PGA Tour 2K23 doesn’t have those, or their most famous courses, like Augusta National. That means the career mode feels like filler as it works around licensing restrictions and takes us through second-tier courses like the Detroit Golf Club and TPC Southwind. That’s an issue when it’s the primary way to play, and here there aren’t a lot of other options.

The career mode feels like filler as it works around licensing restrictions and takes us through second-tier courses.

Taking to the course, the major publisher influence from 2K becomes evident. There’s an effort to streamline things, including an optional three-click swing system. That’s new, but brutally difficult to master, and not the accessible feature that was expected. This method involves holding the swing button to set power, releasing to begin a spinning meter that needs to be stopped twice to determine swing accuracy. If you’re anything like me you can expect botched shots on the regular before reverting to the smooth, clean, and precise analog stick swing.

HB Studios mastered this analog method, thankfully. Other golf games have tried – and even succeeded in their own ways – but HB’s quest to mimic the feel and challenge of a real club pays off. It’s an appropriately fragile existence off the tee or from the fairway, as stick speed dictates a slice or hook. Even when well practiced, the possibility always remains to botch a shot – as it should be. Plus, 2K23 adds needed shot types like punches to squeeze the ball under hazards, furthering PGA Tour’s repertoire and strategy.

Selectable golfers include NBA stars Michael Jordan and Steph Curry.

There’s an attempt to add charisma to this series, but it comes across as half-hearted. Selectable golfers include cover star Tiger Woods and other known PGA names, but also celebrities like NBA stars Michael Jordan and Steph Curry. In the equipment section, a hockey stick is offered as a putter choice, giving necessary nods to Happy Gilmore. That’s it though, and those celebrity players exist only in side modes or versus play. Say what you will about the defunct Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, but maintaining golf’s central appeal while driving with Happy Gilmore’s walk-up swing was a delight, with no gameplay cost.

There’s also TopGolf, a party-esque challenge founded in 2000. Now it’s digital, and a passable substitute for when short on time with friends, if also an uneventful target practice event unlikely to earn any long-term engagement.

Likely, the most time people are going to spend with PGA Tour 2K23 will be with the career, mostly because that’s almost all that’s offered. There’s one goal (FedEx), one play style, and outside of exhibitions, nothing else to do for solo golfers. Brief (usually) one-event rivalries using a Stableford scoring system bring the slightest additional drama. Local and online versus adds small variety like two-on-two match-ups and skins play. That’s something. Between matches the deepening RPG side offers incremental skill upgrades. Some offer easier swing timing, others accuracy, or better work out of bunkers. Leveling requires tiered decision making as each club type is individually boosted, and opportunities grow in tandem alongside the custom golfer’s XP meter.

In a reversal of HB Studios’ usual philosophy, clubs themselves matter. Not just the clubs, but every boost to them, which are acquirable after winning events. A +3 club shaft of power matched with a +2 grip of shot shaping can form a credible weapon – err, piece of sporting equipment. Given PGA Tour 2K23’s demanding swing precision, even a tiny boost to accuracy or timing will reduce risks, and that’s appreciated. It’s a notably game-y idea for what is otherwise such a deep simulation though, and purchasing actual clubs makes no difference. Only the part boosts do.

The quality of its attempt to recreate the atmosphere of televised golf is dismal.

Moving toward the FedEx Cup means dealing with HB Studios’ weak point: The dismal quality of its attempt to recreate the atmosphere of televised golf. It’s not bad so much as utterly broken in places. Commentators make the wrong calls regularly, such as failing to identify when a ball is or isn’t on the green or whether it’s trailing left or right. Attempts to show replays from earlier in the tournament take excessive time to load in this era of SSDs (and chug further when trying to reach the server sometimes), and when they do show up they frequently don’t actually show anything. Rather than following the ball, these snippets stay on the golfer reacting to an unseen shot, but at least the character models justify that lingering attention. Coming from 2K, whose emulation of NBA broadcasts set a best-in-class example, PGA Tour 2K23’s non-functional delivery annoyed more than helped once I got past the first match’s introduction.

As a side note, the orchestral music playing over the menus painfully adds to the idea of golf being a dull, elitist game. There was room for PGA 2K23 to build energy while maintaining its status, but it didn’t take a single opportunity to do so.

The recurring course creator lets people give PGA Tour 2K23 the spark if they so want it. That also helps fill in the course selection’s holes – someone will render an accurate Pebble Beach in no time (with titles like, “Pebbles on the Beach Golf Course”), although as I played before release there was nothing available to download yet. That said, trying to build something offers a pleasant, easy-to-use menu system flush with choices. Better, everything is open from the outset, meaning there’s no need to unlock items to fill the spaces. Yes, a crocodile hiding out by hole 9’s green is just as much an option as placing a hotel on 16.

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