There hasn’t been an official PGA Tour golf game on a Nintendo system since Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 chipped onto the Wii nine years ago. With Tiger's shine dimming over the years and EA seemingly ending its PGA Tour series in 2015 with an underwhelming Rory McIlroy game, that didn’t look like it was going to change any time soon.
Now, though, 2K Sports has picked up the PGA licence, and – just like it did with NBA and WWE, with admittedly mixed results – it’s brought the series to Switch with PGA Tour 2K21. And you know something, it’s not a bad start. Don’t be swayed by the glamour of the 2K branding, though; what we have here is essentially the fourth game in The Golf Club series by Canadian developer HB Studios. 2K took over publishing duties for the last game, The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA Tour, and now it’s back with a revamped title to help it fully fit in with the rest of 2K’s sporting output.
PGA Tour 2K21 marks the first time the series has been released on the Switch, however, and given that HB has had to technically downgrade its game to be playable on Nintendo’s system, the results aren’t too shabby. It’s certainly the most realistic looking golf game on the Switch, although when your competition includes Golf Story and What the Golf?, we suppose ‘most realistic’ is a prize it gets purely for existing.
This realism is best realised in the 15 official courses available to you. From the likes of TPC Sawgrass and TPC Twin Cities to the Copperhead Course and the Atlantic Beach Country Club, each course has been accurately recreated with state-of-the-art scanning technology, and it shows. We hope you've got a thing for American courses, though, because all 15 of them are based in the US; if you're a fan of the St Andrews Old Course, Royal County Down or Muirfield, you're out of luck. As far as this game is concerned, golf only happens in America and your craving for Scottish or Irish courses will have to be fed by downloading fan-made replicas created with the included course designer.
The main meat of PGA Tour 2K21 is its career mode, where you create your own golfer and compete against the best of the rest in an attempt to win the FedEx Cup. You can choose to be dropped straight into a PGA Tour season if that’s what you came for, but if you prefer the feeling of earning it you can start off at the Korn Ferry Tour – the developmental tour for pros who haven’t reached PGA Tour level yet – and try to win your place among the big boys that way. And we do mean boys: although you can create a woman golfer there’s no LPGA licence here, meaning you'll have to compete against the men (something that would no doubt cause heart attacks for some old duffers in private clubs to this day).
The control system is explained in a brief tutorial (which can be replayed whenever you like) and can take a little getting used to. Rather than the old-school ‘three button press’ method you may be used to in older golf games, PGA Tour 2K21 is all about the right stick, and nothing else. After lining up your shot with the left stick, you pull the right stick back to start your backswing, then push it forward for the downswing.
The quality of your shot obviously depends on how straight you pushed the stick, but the game also takes into account how quickly you moved the stick. Too quickly and it’ll hook to the left, too slowly and it’ll slice to the right. It can be tricky to get this timing nailed down, and you may have a frustrating first few hours lining up perfectly good shots, only for them to end up in the rough or a bunker because you were concentrating so much on moving the stick straight up that you did it too slowly.
If you’re playing on the Pro difficulty, which is the only control system supported in online play, you have to take even more things into account. The wind, the angle of your lie and your elevation all come into play, and you’ll have to consider how all of them will ultimately affect your shot. You may be placing your aim cursor smack dab in the middle of the fairway, but if it’s blowing a gale and you’re in the rough, you may have to move the cursor away from your intended target to compensate.
For some hardened gamers, this is a challenge they’ll be happy to take on. If the idea of starting off at the Korn Ferry Tour and languishing in mid-table spots while you get used to the controls and slowly improve is something that sounds rewarding to you, then you can absolutely do that and you’ll have a good time. For anyone else who craves the simplicity of the older Tiger Woods games, however, there are a bunch of assists that can be turned on to make the process of hitting the ball a lot less daunting.
You can remove the downswing timing if you like, meaning you only need to concentrate on hitting straight shots without also having to worry about whether you’re moving the stick at the right speed. You can also let the game take the likes of wind, lie and elevation into account for you in advance and display a predicted arc showing you the likely path and landing point of your ball. It may not be above-board in the eyes of golf sim purists, but if your sports game tastes lie more on the arcade-style side you can fire through a round in no time like this.
While the WWE series took almost no time at all to fit into 2K’s now-standard process of focusing its career mode heavily on grinding and microtransactions, PGA Tour 2K21 feels oddly unlike a typical 2K Sports release. Your player has no stats to level up, no skills to unlock and while they can earn currency it can only be spent on different outfits: if you find a specific shirt, hat, pair of glasses, etc that you like, you only need to play a couple of rounds to afford it and then you really don’t have to even worry about earning anything else.
Meanwhile, the levelling up system regularly rewards you with other items of clothing and new clubs: the latter are the only way you can change your stats, but it’s not like you’re severely weakened at the start of the game, like you are in the NBA 2K series. As a result, even though you can actually spend real-life money to get more in-game currency, there’s practically zero reason to do so and the game never coerces you to do it. It’s refreshingly happy to just let you get on with things.
The fact it doesn’t feel like a 2K game does have its negatives too, mind you. The NBA and WWE games have fun career modes with a proper plot that plays out through cutscenes and cameo appearances from other pros, but there’s nothing like that here; you simply take on a series of events in an attempt to get better. The most interesting deviation you’ll get is the occasional option to choose a pro to be your ‘rival’ but that doesn’t really amount to much. We’d love an actual story mode in the next game.
There are other issues too, mostly of a technical kind. The course designer present in other versions of the game is here and fully featured, which is massively welcome, but the whole thing slows to such a crawl that it’s an exercise in patience: while we appreciate HB Studios’ efforts in making sure the Switch version isn’t missing any features, this one is maybe a bit too much for the Switch to handle.
Annoying, too, is the fact that almost every time we turned on the game (even if the Switch had been in sleep mode and we were resuming a round we’d already started) a screen came up asking us to agree to let 2K Account have access to our Nintendo Account profile. Even though we agreed to it every time, it kept coming up. More annoyingly, Nintendo sent us an automated email confirming this every time we did it. Oy.
On the course itself, you may quickly realise that the Switch version doesn't actually have any spectators. From the entry-level tournaments all the way up to the FedEx Cup, you're basically playing on an empty course with nobody around. Granted, that may be considered realistic at this exact moment in time, but given that the PS4 and Xbox One versions do include crowds we're relatively sure that 'pandemic era presentation' wasn't supposed to be an official feature of the Switch game.
We also encountered an odd bug while we were on the green. Suddenly everything went completely black except the sky and UI, meaning we had to blindly putt into a hole we couldn’t see. This only happened a couple of times, but the fact it happened more than once suggests it wasn’t a freak one-off. Nitpickers will also point out flickering shadows and the like during certain replay angles, but these don’t detract too much from what’s usually a decent looking game.
Speaking of replays, those are the only times you’ll get to see the officially licensed pro golfers in this game. Despite the fact that PGA Tour 2K21 has Justin Thomas on the box and boasts the likenesses of 11 other pros like Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk, you can’t actually play as them in any of the game’s modes, which may be a bit of a disappointment to anyone buying the game with that purpose in mind.
Instead, you only ever see them when you’re playing in the career mode; every now and then your round is interrupted as the game switches to a highlight of one of the pros elsewhere on the course pulling off a big putt while the commentators coo over how great they are. It’s just like watching golf on TV, or it would be if you had to sit watching a loading screen for 20 seconds every time the show cut away to someone else. It disrupts your game so much that you’ll eventually turn these highlights off, essentially removing the pros from the game too (other than seeing their name on the leaderboards).
There’s still work to be done here, then, and with any luck a few years from now we’ll be singing the praises about PGA Tour 2K24’s in-depth story mode directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with a soundtrack curated exclusively by Jay-Z and more microtransactions than you can shake your PayPal password at. Hmmm, actually, maybe less is more in this case.
PGA Tour 2K21 plays a solid golf game with enough flexibility in its control settings to appeal to both die-hard simulation buffs and casual golf fans just looking for a quick round. Its real-life pro players are so underused they may as well not be in here and the game may not yet have the typical 2K Sports trademarks – the polished story mode, the slick TV-style presentation – but it also isn't plagued with microtransactions, and the result is a game that, refreshingly, just gets on with it.