Masters Week: How I Got Into Golf (Video Games)

Masters Week: How I Got Into Golf (Video Games)

This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. It’s Masters Week, where the best golfers in the world gather at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia to compete for one of the sport’s most prestigious honors: the privilege of wearing the Green Jacket that comes with winning the Masters Tournament. It’s when professional golf is at its most revered, among both players and fans. Augusta takes no prisoners– as Rory McIlroy will attest to, after his disastrous Sunday back in 2011– but it rewards skill and strong play.

For the record, I have never played an actual round of golf. I have been to a driving range a few times, and my swing has been described as one that makes Charles Barkley’s swing seem artful by comparison. I can’t hit the ball straight. I can’t hit the ball more than 200 yards. And, honestly, I don’t even hit the ball half of the time. In spite of my lack of on-course experience and absence of any skill whatsoever in real life, I still watch golf telecasts on most Sundays and have been playing golf video games for more than 20 years.

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Sir Charles has a better swing than I do. Even here.

Why? I’m glad you asked. (Or maybe you didn’t.)

Back in 1994, after getting laid off from my job at AT&T as a long-distance operator, I wound up moving in with my paternal grandmother in order to financially regroup. I was a young 22 years old then, and my grandmother and I didn’t have a lot in common, given our age gap. I’d be playing video games in my room at night after sifting through want ads by day, and she worked half of the day and spent the rest watching television. At night, we watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! together, and on the weekends, she would watch golf while I did chores and ran errands.

She tried to convince me that golf was a good sport to watch, but I was hearing none of it. “Golf is for old people or stuck-up businessmen,” I used to tell myself. My love of sports was based on video games that I was playing: NBA Jam, NHL Hockey, John Madden Football, RBI Baseball, and Tecmo Super Bowl. I had rented PGA Tour Golf for my Super Nintendo Entertainment System a couple of years earlier, and I really didn’t “get it”… so I forgot about it– and golf in general.

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PGA Tour Golf for the SNES was “rough”. Get it?

One late summer weekend, however, I decided to sit with her and watch some golf coverage. It was the United States Amateur Golf Championship, and there was some kid named “Tiger” who was mounting a furious comeback against his opponent. “You should watch this young man,” my grandmother said. “He was six shots back, and now he’s even.” (This was match play, and Tiger had actually been six holes down before making his charge.) The hole that we were watching was the famous island 17th at TPC Sawgrass, a hole that has seen many errantly-struck golf balls land in the water. Tiger’s tee shot narrowly missed the water, landing on the fringe of the green instead. Showing no fear, and seemingly with the experience of a golfer twice his age, Tiger drained the birdie putt to take the lead for the first time in the match. He went on to win that event, and I hear that he went on to be a pretty good golfer on the pro circuit.

After watching that event, my interest in golf rose. I mustered up the funds– between savings and game trades– to purchase PGA Tour Golf III for my SEGA Genesis. While the game didn’t have Tiger Woods in it, it did have a playable form of TPC Sawgrass in it. Could I do what Tiger did? Could I win a golf tournament, despite not knowing what the heck I was doing?

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This still plays really well 22 years later.

No. Not for awhile, anyway. I needed to learn about how holes were laid out, about when to hit for power versus when to hit for accuracy, about how to read the slope and break of the greens, and how different lies affected different shots. My initial strategy was to let the power meter soar past 100% and try to time my accuracy button press to hit my shots long and straight… but that was a bad strategy, because when my timing was off, my shots took off wildly to the left or right and I found myself either deep in the rough or way out of bounds.

After weeks of practice, though, and learning to have a calculator by my side to help calculate proper power percentages for approach shots, I began finishing tournaments in the top 20, top 10, top 3, and eventually in first place. My win came at TPC River Highlands, which was noteworthy because it’s located right here in Southern New England (Cromwell, Connecticut).

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The 17th at Sawgrass. Even in a video game, it’s intimidating.

On the weekends, my grandmother and I would watch tournaments together. We became closer thanks to a new mutual interest, and I gradually learned to understand the game as I watched. When PGA Tour ’96 came out for the PlayStation, my grandmother bought it for me. I would tell her when I placed highly in a tournament, and she would beam with pride, just like she would have if I has been a professional player.

Unfortunately, in early 1996, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. By September, she was gone. After a tough holiday season that year, my mood began to change when golf season rolled around in 1997. Watching golf on television and playing golf video games, such as the PGA Tour games, was not only comforting… but also reminded me of her and the good times we had together for the 24 years that she was in my life. I remembered the talks we had, the “ooh”s and “aah”s of close shots and playoff finishes, and the gift she gave me of introducing me to a sport that I never knew that I could be interested in.

I bought PGA Tour Golf games new every year between 1997 and 2013. It was a rite of passage for me; new games, new courses, new players, and new features. PGA Tour 98 saw the addition of Ernie Johnson providing commentary. Tiger Woods partnered with EA Sports to put his name on PGA Tour Golf games from 1999 until 2013. While the series’ quality struggled in its PlayStation years, it really found its stride in the next console generation. The addition of Augusta National and The Masters in 2011, for Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 12, made my dream come true of playing on golf’s greatest stage.

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And that brings me full circle on this Masters Week 2016. I hope to get a few rounds in at virtual Augusta National in-between college classes and homework, and I’ll be watching Masters coverage when I can this coming weekend. My thoughts, as they always do during this time of year, will occasionally drift to memories of watching Tiger’s comeback at Sawgrass, playing PGA Tour III on my Genesis, my first tournament win… and, most importantly, of my grandmother. She was my biggest fan, my biggest supporter, and was one of my best friends. This tournament, and paying attention to golf in general, keeps her close.