Tiger Woods 09: Time to Smack Some Balls

September 22, 2008

Still the only professional golf franchise on the market, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 can best be described as a renovation instead of an innovation. Featuring nearly the same play modes, swing mechanics, and options, are the subtle gameplay refinements enough to find some space for this one in your bag?
The design focus has clearly been on the online integration, as the modes are virtually identical to last year's version. The 16 courses consist of five new venues and revamped versions of previous ones.

The GamerNet system of user-submitted, online challenges is continued, but now you can participate in these events no matter which mode you decide to play. Instant challenges will appear periodically on various holes, letting you earn GamerNet points simply by playing through the main game as you normally would. Whether it's trying to out-muscle someone's top drive or attempting to kiss the pin on an approach shot, you never know what challenge you might find on a hole, which makes you want to keep playing.

In addition to the seamless instant challenge feature, PGA Tour 09 introduces a simultaneous play option to significantly cut the time it takes to complete a round online. Up to four golfers can compete in a ranked or unranked match. While you're playing, you don't actually see your opponent's golfer, but rather the results of their shots by brightly colored ball trails.

Adjustable shot time limits (from 10 to 60 seconds) also keep things interesting. If you don't make your shot within the time frame, you'll receive a penalty stroke. While a full 18-holes can now be played in minutes, the light trails from rivals can interfere with your timing. The visual cues have an annoying tendency to streak by just as you are about to sink a putt or chip on the green.

It’s nice to get through 18 holes online in less than an hour, and the instant challenge feature keeps you on your toes, but they’re still fairly cosmetic changes in a game that otherwise replicates last year’s tour.

Once again you can choose from an analog-based swing system or an easier, triple-click method found in games like Hot Shots Golf. New to PGA Tour 09 is a visual display of your analog swing that shows you precisely where you went wrong if you slice or hook the ball due to a shaky left thumb. Another change is the inclusion of Tiger's personal coach, Hank Haney, during the development phase of your created golfer. Before you begin a career, Hank will evaluate your skills in the areas of power, accuracy, short game, and putting. By completing a series of targeting drills, you'll earn modest ratings that you'll gradually improve by playing with your custom character.

The addition of Hank is, to be perfectly blunt, a gimmick, since he doesn't give you any advice throughout your career and essentially disappears after the initial introduction. Since the man speaks with the fire and intensity of a comatose turtle, it's not a huge loss. Yet his drills become important further along in the game, simply because they are a means to improve your stats. Instead of quickly maxing out your golfer's abilities and then dominating every event thereafter, the developers wisely added a dynamic skills system that keeps the action challenging.

You have to maintain your golfer's ratings by performing well or you'll suffer a penalty. The highest rating you'll attain in each category is a 12, but maintaining that level of play is tough. Those who consistently make accurate, long drives will receive a boost in their power rating, for example, but that boost may disappear the next time you visit a windy Pebble Beach. To help prevent a complete erosion of your hard-earned stats, the game lets you work on deficient areas by practicing Hank’s drills--reliving the exact shots that caused you grief. It can feel masochistic, but it definitely improves your skills.

The other big gameplay change is a modest but meaningful one for those who like customization. PGA Tour 09 introduces an option to tune your clubs to take advantage of certain course layouts or personal swing tendencies. Want more distance? Greater accuracy? A little more fade or draw? Just pick a club and adjust a few sliders. There are, of course, tradeoffs. Increasing a club's distance, for example, shrinks the sweet spot, making it more difficult to hit the ball.

The gameplay has been altered even less than the design in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09. The addition of Hank and the swing monitor keeps you on your game, but it’s fairly easy to play in the first place.

Courses are more detailed and vibrant this year, and character models feature smooth facial expressions and body language. The robust player creation feature from previous installments is still included, allowing you to make a living and breathing "Big Bertha" instead of just hitting with one.

Taking a step back this year, however, is the commentary. Longtime announcers David Feherty and Gary McCord have been dropped in favor of Kelly Tilghman and Sam Torrance. While the original team was in desperate need of some new lines, this one is flat and emotionless. The commentary is also disjointed, as the two don't play off each other's comments. The worst part is that some phrases are triggered long after they’re relevant.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 doesn’t shake things up, but its enhancements keep the game entertaining and addictive, which is really all that matters. We'd love to see more courses, more equipment options, and a more in-depth career with caddies, golf carts, and a customizable clubhouse, but what's here is still worth seeking out for devoted fans of the long-running series. You really need an online connection to take advantage of all the game has to offer, but both novices and pros alike will find something to enjoy in this well-produced effort.