From a pure golfing perspective, PGA Tour 2K23 is the best simulation golf game ever made. With realistic ball physics, precise shot-shaping, and an emphasis on rhythm and swing path, 2K23 delivers on the many idiosyncrasies of the beautiful game that is golf. Combine the refined golfing mechanics with deeper levels of customization, and I can safely say that PGA Tour 2K23 is a meaningful upgrade over its predecessor. And hey, it also marks the return of Tiger Woods to the virtual links, which is a big deal for those who grew up playing Tiger Woods golf games.

PGA Tour 2K23 is the first new entry in the series in two years. That’s unusual for sports games, as most have annual entries. After spending more than a dozen hours with 2K23, I’m starting to feel like this release model–where developers have more time to make improvements–would go a long way toward fixing many of the issues that plague long-running sports series. It doesn’t offer minor, iterative changes. Instead, PGA 2K23 is a marked improvement on its predecessor–a rarity in the sports sim genre.

The PGA 2K series–previously called The Golf Club before 2K acquired HB Studios–has always done a remarkable job with swing mechanics. Emphasizing timing and rhythm more than popular golf games of yesteryear, the series makes each swing feel critical–just like the real sport. PGA Tour 2K23 follows that tradition and improves on it with a couple of new core features: a revamped swing meter and a three-click swing system.

The swing meter for analog controls has moved from below to next to your golfer. It’s shaped like an arc that mimics the swing plane. Though largely a presentational difference at first glance, it’s actually pretty clever. By redesigning the meter, it’s far easier to observe the path of the club during your backswing and stop it in the sweet spot. In turn, this helped create a smoother swing and allowed me to really get to know the swing path of my created golfer as well as the playable pros in the game. It’s also slyly teaching you how to achieve perfect timing without the meter. For dedicated players, the best results come from “feel.” Some competitive online tournaments in previous entries have banned the meter altogether, so now it’s easier to make that transition to playing from muscle memory instead of the swing aide.

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Though the analog stick controls are still the way to go for an authentic experience, HB Studios added an innovative three-click system. This type of shot mechanic has been featured in many golf games, including old EA Sports Tiger Woods titles, Mario Golf, and Everybody’s Golf (Hot Shots). Typically seen as more of an “arcade” mechanic, the system here is unconventional but works exceedingly well.

The three-click system utilizes the circle in the bottom-right corner that typically shows shot feedback. You press and hold the action button and watch the fill to determine distance. After releasing the button and (hopefully) stopping it in the white ring, a line spins counter-clockwise toward the top of the circle. There, you have to once again press the button to stop it in the white area. Finally, another line goes down counter-clockwise toward the bottom of the circle, where you have to stop it in the white one more time. These three actions–just two for putts–create the distance, accuracy, and rhythm of each shot.

Many three-click swing systems really only have two meaningful button presses (top and bottom), so the design here is more nuanced, which is fitting considering the analog stick swing system is more complex than your average golf sim.

What’s really great about both systems is that they are adaptable to your skill level. Both swing styles have six different difficulty levels to choose from, so beginners can hit awesome shots and turn in low scorecards with either method. The three-click system can get intense on higher difficulty levels, so it can certainly still be used by “serious” players.

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The fine-tuned swing system is what makes PGA Tour 2K23 really hum, but it’s bolstered by many other smaller features that elevate the overall golfing to a realistic level, including ball alignment for altering trajectory, shot-shaping, and numerous shot styles. You’re given full control over your pre-shot setup, which is just about as important as the swing itself. But again, if you just want to play casually and don’t want to worry about any of this stuff, the many customization options allow you to tailor the experience to be as straightforward as you like.

The smaller issues I had with 2K21’s on-the-course gameplay are gone in 2K23. Putts with proper speed seemed to drop into the hole more often, which is great because there were too many lip-outs that didn’t really make sense in the last entry. Hitting out of the rough also feels more realistic this time around. Previously, the penalty for an off-line teeshot was often immense, with short rough and especially “heavy rough” making the ball react like you were hitting it out of weeds up to your knees. Wayward shots can–and will–hurt you at times, but I found that it’s more possible to pull off a great recovery shot that has the higher ball flight you’d expect.

MyCareer has a slew of improvements. Here, you work your way up from the Korn Ferry Tour to the PGA, earning points toward your season-long ranking as well as in-game cash, other items, and the attention of sponsors. Up until now, the only way to customize your stats was to purchase and add new clubs to your bag from major brands like TaylorMade, Titleist, Callaway, and Mizuno. Now there are multiple meaningful progression systems, including an overarching Archetype choice, further club customization via Fittings, and skill points.

Archetype drastically alters your strengths and weaknesses. You can choose to be adept at putting, bombing teeshots, shot-shaping, recovery shots, or swing rhythm. You can change your Archetype at any time, and it’s beneficial to choose an area to boost that you’re weak at. You can even be clever and adjust your Archetype based on the course you’re playing.

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When you buy new clubs in real life, you often get a club “fitting,” to see what works for you. In 2K23, fittings are essentially modifications to specific clubs to alter your stats–they can make a big difference. You earn these by defeating your “rivals” in tournaments, but you can also buy them in the in-game marketplace. Yes, this has the potential to mimic NBA 2K’s MyPlayer system in which you can pay to get a better player. That said, I’ve earned plenty of fittings through the solo career mode and feel as if my golfer is gradually getting better. Paying to have the best stats right away doesn’t appeal to me, but it could make playing online somewhat annoying down the line. Overall, I see the Fittings as a way to incentivize playing through multiple seasons of MyCareer.

There are also skill trees for each club type. You earn skill points through play that add bonuses to your attributes throughout the round based on performance. These activate/deactivate based on set conditions and offer minor boosts to aspects like timing, lie conditions, flight, and swing path. They can be reset and tinkered with at any time. I didn’t notice any big differences from these skill trees, but it combines with Archetypes and Fittings to give you more control over your created golfer outside of just picking their clubs and outfits.

I’m not as sold on the new golf ball features, as they generally feel like something that are designed to get you to spend money. Your golf ball has the name and look of popular real-world golf balls like Titleist Pro V1 or Bridgestone B XS TW, but the stats are tied to consumables. Golf balls have four stats: spin, flight, bounce, and roll. “Ball Types” alter these stats, and these consumables even come with rarities ranging from common to legendary. Sounds like most sports games these days, right? Yes, sadly it is.

Bought in packs of 3, 6, or 12, they aren’t yours to keep. You use one up every round. Thankfully, you can purchase these with virtual currency earned simply by playing (even solo mode). You can, however, buy currency with real money to pick up these consumables. I would never do this, but it’s worth noting that the stat changes are immense with some of the pricier and “rarer” options. You can alter a stat up to 60 points over the free, no stats-boost ball type.

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I could envision this becoming an issue for someone who plays a lot of rounds online. Courses can have firm greens, rainy conditions, lengthy layouts, or any number of quirks that set up better for longer carry distances, more spin, more roll, etc. You could theoretically use up all of your stat boosts and consider spending real money if it helps you enough. Unlike fittings, this new feature doesn’t feel aligned to gradually making your golfer better–it’s just one of the annoyances that plagues modern sports games with online communities. It’s still too early to say if these consumables will contribute to a pay-to-win model, but they feel at odds with PGA Tour 2K23’s dedication to realism. After all, your golf ball attributes should be connected to the brand and model of ball.

Though PGA 2K21 technically had real pro golfers, they were only your competition; you couldn’t play as them, which felt weird. PGA 2K23 remedies that. Led by cover star Tiger Woods, 2K23 has a bunch of well-known PGA golfers, including Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau, and Will Zalatoris. It also has LPGA stars like Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko. And hey, it even has golfers who defected to the controversial LIV Golf League like Open champ Cameron Smith. 2K has already stated that it won’t remove any LIV golfers from the game, but it’s still a bit funny since they are banned from PGA Tour events. At least those guys can still compete at The Players Championship and in the FedEx Cup… just not in real life.

The addition of playable pros is particularly great for casual rounds of golf. Sometimes you don’t want to play as a created golfer; you’d rather step into the shoes of Tiger Woods and swing the club just like him. It’s nice to see swings that look ripped from real life from these pros, too.

PGA 2K23’s official course list has expanded as well, but not by a whole lot. There are three new courses at launch: Wilmington Country Club (South Course), The Renaissance Club, and St. George’s Golf. The latter pair are particularly cool, as they are the first in the series outside of the United States. The Renaissance Club is a links-style course, which offers a welcome change of pace. Several iconic courses will be added at a later date, including Pebble Beach and two Torrey Pines tracks. The returning courses and the new ones don’t look much different than 2K21. The graphics in general are quite similar to PGA 2K21. Swing animations are more fluid, but the actual scenery didn’t receive a big bump despite the two-year gap between releases. Courses are still rendered in more than enough detail, though, so this isn’t really a concern to me. If you were expecting a huge makeover on the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, however, you’re not going to find that here. If you own a new-gen console, you will appreciate the faster load times, though.

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The lack of a more robust course list means that the career mode still utilizes user-created courses for a bunch of the tournaments during the season. Many of the courses made within the in-game course creator are wonderful, though. There are even faithful recreations of other real courses. The only time throughout the season where I wished there were more courses was when I played the Major Championships. PGA 2K23 has the season-long FedEx Cup, the playoffs, and the “fifth major” that is The Players Championship, but it doesn’t have the four most important tournaments of the year: The Masters, US Open, PGA Championship, The Open. This may have bothered me more this time around because we now know that EA Sports is bringing back its golf series next year–without Tiger Woods, who is with 2K now, of course–and already showed off a glimpse of Augusta National, the hallowed site of The Masters.

But at the end of the day, the easy-to-use course creator and growing library of user-created courses gives PGA 2K23 a seriously vast library of layouts that outweighs its lack of iconic real-world courses. After spending two years with 2K21, I still regularly found new courses I loved, and I’m sure that will be the case with 2K23 as well.

PGA 2K23 is great for solo mode against the CPU pros in MyCareer, but Online Societies is what will likely keep golfers on the course. It’s hard to say much about Online Societies in 2K23 since the game is in its infancy, but 2K already has its official society up and running with active tournaments. You can create your own societies–basically clubs–to play alongside your friends, or join one of the many other societies that cater to all skill levels. Online Societies offers an easy way to compete on the course against other golfers without having to actually go head-to-head at the same time. Playing in tournaments is a good way to earn virtual currency from purse prizes.

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Everyone should try the Online Societies mode, but you can also play head-to-head against friends online or with local multiplayer. In addition to playing 18 holes, you can also face off in Topgolf. The party game asks you to aim at targets to rack up the most points across ten shots. Topgolf is a lot more fun in real life, unsurprisingly, but it’s still a nice little bonus for when you want to play against friends but don’t have time for a full round.

It’s worth noting that there’s also a Clubhouse Pass–the golf equivalent of a battle pass–that’ll be available at launch for $8. Owning this pass lets you work toward unlocking premium cosmetics–purely cosmetics. It wasn’t live yet so I can’t add any insight here, but it’s good that it’s tied to cosmetics and not stat-changing items. There is a free tier as well, so you’ll earn cosmetics with the pass regardless if you pay for the premium version or not.

With retooled swing mechanics, including an inventive three-click system, PGA Tour 2K23’s on-the-course golfing is the best yet, not just in the series, but in the history of the simulation golf genre. Mostly smart improvements to MyCareer mode make you feel more in control of your created golfer’s trajectory–even if the new consumables have the slight potential to become pay-to-win. Finally being able to play as real pros again is a joy, but the minimal real-life course additions put a slight damper on the fun. Nevertheless, it’s not lacking in content in the slightest thanks to the engaging Online Societies mode and the endless possibilities provided by user-created courses, many of which could be mistaken for layouts designed by well-known course architects. PGA Tour 2K23 continues the series tradition of being welcoming to new players while offering an authentic, challenging golfing experience for those who desire it.

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