Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 Review

A new club tuner, simultaneous online play, and input from Tiger's own coach make this version as close as you'll get to a green.

Hi, I'm Tiger Woods, and the PGA Tour season didn't end without me.

Tiger Woods may be sitting out the rest of the 2008 PGA Tour to rehabilitate a bum knee, but that hasn't stopped the golf series that bears his name from offering a bunch of thoughtful touch-ups. The 2009 edition of Electronic Arts' golfing finger-slinger plays like last year's version with perks, ironing out the kinks in its core play while shoring up accessibility with features like a club tuner that lets you tweak everything from wedges to woods, dynamic skills that fluctuate up or down based on your performance, and commentary plus custom drills from Tiger's own real-life coach, Hank Haney. Factor in five new courses and four new golfers with an international twist plus expanded online challenges, revised minigames, and a simultaneous-play feature that lets up to four players polish off a round without waiting turns, and PGA Tour 09 is the most versatile version of the series in years. The game is $40 on PSP or PlayStation 2, or $60 for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 versions.

You'll have to hammer the power button on the backswing to finesse this 331- yard drive.

Last year's features return mostly improved in PGA Tour 09, including the game's bifurcated swing interface which lets players choose between flicking the left thumb-stick to simulate back- and downswings, or tapping a button three times to indirectly accomplish the same thing. The prehistoric three-click swing is easy to master but feels detached and mechanical, and pulling off complex pop-ups or rare double eagles still requires coming to grips with the analog thumb-stick. Last year's rendition was hypersensitive, causing you to sink balls in bunkers and water hazards with an errant nudge. This year's iteration comes with a helpful instant-feedback meter that lets you see precisely how your thumb is moving and feels calibrated to be a trifle more forgiving whether you're swinging with Tiger or just some bogey-prone hacker. You'll still want to babysit the game's automatic club caddy, however, as it gets confused and subs in silly picks on complex courses that require more strategic selections.

Watch your opponents tee off in spectator mode.

PGA Tour 09 ships with 11 updated courses and five brand-new ones, including Gary Player Country Club in South Africa, Wentworth Country Club in England, Sheshan Golf Club in China, Wolf Creek in Nevada, and Bay Hill Country Club in Florida. Several of the new courses (Sheshan in particular) have devilishly tricky hazards fronting greens that'll force you to master your backswing and avoid airmailing balls over the green. Kelly Tilghman and Sam Torrance replace Gary McCord and David Feherty as commentators and do a great if subdued job providing compliments and wry jabs on off shots. Se Ri Pak, Darren Clarke, Nick Dougherty, and Rory McIlroy add an international spin to the game's substantial player roster.

Track the rise and fall of your putting prowess.

PGA Tour 09 simplifies the series' skill system, folding everything into just four areas: power, accuracy, short game, and putting. Unlike last year's version, these attributes can now sink as well as rise depending on your performance, a feature that makes far more sense than last year's one-way progressions. Instead of creating impervious supergolfers, your custom pro will now backtrack in a specific area if he or she plays poorly. Split the fairway with shotgun drives, and your power rating will skyrocket, but pull your drives, and it'll crumble. Hit consistently inside 100 yards of the green, and your short game will soar--or collapse if you're constantly climbing out of bunkers and water hazards. The only downside? It takes a maddening 10 or more seconds to save your game, something that happens automatically each and every time an attribute changes.

Tiger Woods coach Hank Haney is your personal guru.

Dovetailing with EA Sports' recent attempts to shore up accessibility in all its sports titles, PGA Tour 09 introduces Tiger Woods's personal coach Hank Haney to walk you through the basics and shepherd you from, hopefully, novice to semi-pro. After completing a preliminary startup test that assigns you a basic "My Skill" rating, Hank will gauge your progress as you play through tournaments and challenges. While his audio commentary leans toward the generic, it's his follow-up drills that merit kudos. Polish off a course or challenge, and he'll offer optional power, accuracy, short game, and putting regimens that can temporarily bolster your attributes. The verbal advice may amount to fortune-cookie wisdom, but the focus sessions actually help you get a handle on the interface much more quickly than banging through in-game months of tournament play.

Pick your pleasure, be it power or predictability.

PGA Tour 09's new Club Tuner lets you fiddle the design and physics of your club set to favor performance or ease of use. Fire this up, and you'll appear on a driving range, then choose a driver, wood, iron, or wedge. Take a dozen or so of your best swings with your chosen club, then pop open the tuning menu to modify its power, draw and fade on the ball, adjust loft and spin amounts, or apply bias to correct bad hooks or slices. Hank weighs in afterward, too, suggesting settings based on your playing style, though it's usually better to ignore him and suss things out for yourself. Aside from the game's practice drills, the Club Tuner is probably the most helpful corrective tool the series has ever seen, and one that delivers immediate and substantial results on the fairway.

Boost your skills by spending time--and GamerNet points--at the pro shop.

Between the recycled minigames, challenges, and PGA Tour events, you'll fritter away plenty of time browsing the pro shop to purchase shirts, hats, gloves, shoes, and of course better clubs to improve your power, accuracy, short game, and putting. You can purchase these using either your earned GamerNet points, or alternatively this year, actual Microsoft Points, which of course cost real money. While micropayments such as these may be the future, they still feel like a cheat here, and not nearly as satisfying as pulling together your own prize loot to buy those SQ Sumo 5900 drivers and X-Forged Vintage wedges.

Play others online without taking turns.

The clever new Simultaneous Play feature allows up to four players to run a stroke play game without waiting for each player to take his or her shot. It's essentially virtual golf's version of "we-go," as opposed to the traditional "you go, then I go," an innovation that speeds up activities by eliminating redundancy. In other words, it's just like playing solo, except that individual progress is tracked and displayed in real time through different color-coded ball-flight arcs as your opponents play down the fairway. Once everyone has completed a hole, the next one begins, and players that finish early can watch opponents polish off their drives in spectator mode.

Oh beautiful for spacious skies...and monster water hazards.

We're still a ways off from photo-realistic courses, but PGA Tour 09 tweaks the lighting and player models to make this the best-looking game of digital golf on a TV screen yet. Oceans and streams ripple in the sun, which in turn casts a golden haze over courses and sends sunbeams out of notably sharper skies with more natural clouds. The only distracting visual, considering how much time you spend in these games eyeballing the edges of fairways, is the "improved" spectator animation on the sidelines. Someone forgot to mix this up, so you'll get dozens of people right next to each other gesticulating at precisely the same time, crossing their arms or clapping like synchronized puppets.

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