Golf is about filling a hole. Not just the hole on the green, but whatever weird, unknowable hole in a person’s life makes them want to spend their free time playing something as boring as golf. I’ve given the sport a couple of earnest tries, and its appeal eludes me more than perhaps any other supposed form of entertainment in this world. Maybe I’d understand it if I was a businessman. All I know is there are far better ways to drink with your friends than smacking a little ball around what should be a public park.
Still, I can definitely appreciate a good golf videogame. There was one year in college where Hot Shots Golf helped get me through the summer after long shifts driving for Domino’s and long nights drinking at the 40 Watt and Engine Room. Games helped me understand golf as an intellectual exercise, as a puzzle where you had to factor in not just your own physical skills but your environment, as well. I’ve gotten hooked on the occasional golf game ever since, but almost always on the cartoonish end of the spectrum—games that rely on the fundamentals of golf without getting too deep into the strategy or all the different variables that can impact the real game.
2K’s new-ish PGA Tour series falls on the more in-depth and studious side of golf games, so I had no experience with it until a recent media event at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. I can’t compare what I played that day to the previous game in the series that came out in 2020, or to the Golf Club series that preceded it. I can tell you about what I played at East Lake, though, and also explain why I wanted to go to a hands-on demo for something I’m not especially interested in. It all has to do with one thing: Atlanta. And also, maybe, just a little bit, Hollywood character actor Christopher McDonald, a.k.a. Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore, whose presence was promised in the invitation, and who just kind of milled about the demo tent all morning.
I might have an almost negative interest in the sport of golf, but I am very aware of East Lake Golf Club’s stature. It’s the oldest golf course in Atlanta, and it was the home turf for Bobby Jones, the legendary hometown boy (and, sadly, Georgia Tech grad) who still might be the greatest golfer of all time. Jones’ rep has probably faded a bit among younger generations—his peak was a century ago, and he died well before even I was born—but he was one of the most prominent ambassadors for this city in the first half of the 20th century, and his legacy looms large both in golf (he co-founded the Masters, for crying out loud) and among those interested in Atlanta history. If you’ve ever been to the Atlanta History Center (a place, like Domino’s, where I worked one summer), you might know that one of its few permanent exhibits is focused entirely on Bobby Jones. He’s the only Atlantan to receive that honor—although it looks like Izzy might be next in line.
Despite my interest in Atlanta history, I had never been to East Lake before. It’s hard to get in. You have to be a member, or invited by a member, and membership costs an amount of money that would probably knock Bobby Jones’ Depression-era head clean off onto the fairway. So when the videogame people offered me the chance to visit this legendary local institution, of course I took it.
I spent most of my time at this important and impenetrable place playing PGA Tour 2K23 in a big white tent where I was able to get a rum and coke at 11 in the morning. I played nine holes and I played 18 holes. Sometimes I played only two or three holes and then put the controller down on the table and walked away. I tried out both of the two main control schemes, the three click model where I had to press a button at the right time while a marker spins quickly around a circle, and the analogue stick scheme, where I drove the ball by pulling the right stick back and then quickly flicking it forward. (The latter is easier, more satisfying, and just feels natural in a way the former doesn’t.) During some games I played as a member of the LPGA tour, including Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson. Other times I played as Bubba Watson, a fellow Georgia Bulldog who I’m pretty sure I dislike for some reason I can’t quite remember (probably Trump related, I guess?) Then I played as Tiger Woods, and as Collin Morikawa, and as Justin Thomas.
Most importantly, I played as a late ‘90s era Michael Jordan wearing a bucket hat.
Michael Jordan—legendary basketball player and personal-offense collector—is playable in PGA Tour 2K23 exclusively as a pre-order bonus, and if I was serious about my golf videogames I would make sure I locked him down for my roster. It’s not just the incongruity of a man known for almost perfecting a sport popping up in a game for an entirely different sport. It’s not just that the infinite capacity for holding grudges revealed in The Last Dance turned Jordan into a more fascinating and relatable figure. It’s mostly because of that damned bucket hat. When I think of golf I now think of the greatest NBA player of all time dressed up like the drummer for the Stone Roses. It sent me down a Google hole of tracking the man’s relationship with the once again trendy hat that represents an insouciance that seems at odds with the prickly competitor seen in The Last Dance, and after poring through pages worth of photos I can tell you that Jordan absolutely loves his bucket hats. Especially when golfing. PGA Tour 2K23 is nothing if not accurate.
It’s so accurate that, while playing the game’s East Lake course, I quickly became less interested in the golf itself than in the Atlanta skyline in the background of the screen. I know a golf game isn’t going to let me leave the course. I know it’s not going to have some hidden, unannounced, GTA-style recreation of my home city playable for those who can hit the ball hard enough to make it past the ends of East Lake. But I was definitely going to try, dammit.
During one of my sessions I tried as hard as I could to get that ball off of East Lake and see how close I could get to that Atlanta skyline. If you’ve never been on the green in a golf videogame and grabbed your driver to see how far you could hit your ball out of bounds, you should give it a shot. Despite realizing how these things work, I was still slightly deflated that I couldn’t belt that virtual golf ball into East Atlanta for a quick in-game lunch at the EARL, or try to hit it on top of the Polaris. There was only one small part of Atlanta I could visit in PGA Tour 2K23, and the fact that it was one I had never seen in person before was both enlightening and disappointing. PGA Tour 2K23 will let rank-and-file Atlantans visit an otherwise inaccessible golf course that’s been a part of the city’s history for almost 120 years, but other than a skyline it (understandably) doesn’t let us see any of the rest of the city. I can’t blame or fault PGA Tour 2K23, but it does underline how weird it is that nobody has modeled an open world game on Atlanta yet. That’s one of the few ways Rock Star could get me to play another GTA. (Another would be a GTA set in 1980s EPCOT, and I doubt Disney would go for that.)
While I was failing to explore my home city in videogame form, Christopher McDonald—star of Grease 2, Breakin’, and two American Pie direct-to-DVD spinoffs—was holding court in the preview tent. He’s cultivated a secondary career of showing up at golf events based on his iconic Happy Gilmore character, “Tappy” Tibbons—oh wait, that’s who he played in Requiem for a Dream. I mean Shooter McGavin, a role in which he gave a fantastic performance as a sleazy asshole, and which has come to define an excellent and fruitful career as a highly talented character actor. There’s far more to McDonald than Shooter, but you’ve got to give the people what they want, and in a weird blurring of the lines between fact and fiction McDonald was seemingly in character throughout his time at the media event. Or at least he was more than willing to slide into character whenever anybody wanted him to, which seemed to happen a lot. As somebody who is professionally embarrassed whenever I accidentally refer to an actor by their character name (I still cringe when I think about calling Gillian Jacobs “Britta” at SXSW ‘13), I was surprised at how often McDonald was referred to solely and directly as “Shooter.” Nobody there actually thought he was his character, of course, but they were more than willing to play along; it did not bother McDonald one bit, and he clearly enjoyed playing to everybody’s expectations. He aims to please.
Acknowledging once again that I am eternally out of touch with literally anything to do with golf (or at least the kind of golf that doesn’t end with you trying to get the ball in a pirate’s eyepatch or clown’s mouth), I’m pretty sure PGA Tour 2K23 is serious about pleasing its fans, too. Its gorgeous recreation of East Lake captures the verdant splendor of the park, and the two different control schemes each resembled the physical actions and thought process behind golf in their own ways. I could tell a difference in performance with each golfer, and although I can’t say how closely they match their real-life counterparts, I can say that playing as Tiger Woods did not feel like playing as Bubba Watson. (Or as Michael Jordan in his Madchester phase.) As a fan of other sports, what I played of PGA Tour 2K23 compared favorably to best-in-class games like the MLB The Show series or EA’s NHL series during its good years. A pro videogame golfer might pick up on flaws and issues that flew over my head, but as somebody who plays these games casually, with long stretches in between, PGA Tour 2K23 could very easily fill the same hole that Hot Shots Golf did for me almost 25 years ago.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.