I don’t spend much time playing video games whose difficulty is a selling point; if it’s anything like a Soulslike, I’m likely to avoid it. So it’s been a long time since a game has made me swear as much as PGA Tour 2K23 has. I’m not proud that one of those instances occurred when my wife came downstairs to see how things were going, just as I shanked a tee shot — for perhaps the 50th time? I’ve lost count at this point — into a thicket of trees on the left side of the fairway.
From wayward drives that end up in the drink to gimme putts that somehow don’t drop, the analog stick swing mechanic is my greatest frustration in PGA Tour 2K23. After all, swinging is the main thing you do in this game; it takes 60 to 80 shots, on average, to complete a full 18-hole round.
But after taking thousands of swings across hundreds of holes of golf, I still don’t feel like I have a great handle on my virtual clubs in PGA Tour 2K23. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m improving — an issue that is compounded because I’m also not getting a meaningful sense of progression for my created golfer in the game’s MyCareer mode.
PGA Tour 2K23 defaults to a control scheme that’s common in golf video games: To swing, you pull down on the right stick and then flick it upward. Here, though, the timing of the second motion (the downswing) is crucial — you’ll pull the shot to the left if you flick too quickly, and push it to the right if you’re too slow.
Downswing timing is the bane of my existence. I’ve enabled many of the assists available in the game’s settings, and have been hoping I’d eventually be able to wrap my head around the swing system. But even on the second-easiest difficulty setting, swinging feels like something of a crapshoot. No matter how many practice cuts I take, I’m liable to hook a shot when I swing for real.
There’s another option now: Fulfilling a long-standing request, developer HB Studios has added a traditional three-click system in PGA Tour 2K23. It’s much less analogous to a real-life golf swing than, well, the analog stick scheme, but it’s good that an alternative is available.
This is HB Studios’ second effort under 2K Sports, a mass-market publisher. As such, I’m surprised that PGA Tour 2K23 doesn’t feel substantively more accessible than its predecessor, 2020’s PGA Tour 2K21. Even the three-click swinging is implemented in a way that feels like it’s different for the sake of being different. Rather than simply pressing the button three times, you first hold it down to determine power, and then tap it twice to fine-tune the accuracy. I tried this system and quickly reverted to analog controls, despite my issues with them.
PGA Tour 2K23’s MyCareer mode also ends up feeling overcomplicated, although its foundation is solid. When creating your MyPlayer character, you choose one of five archetypes. For instance, Powerhouse players can drive the ball farther than anyone else, but they struggle with accuracy and putting. I’ve stuck with Woodsman because, frankly, I miss so many fairways and greens that I need all the help I can get when recovering from a bad lie in the rough. It’s nice that I can change my archetype if I ever want to, at no cost.
Here, HB Studios’ design works beautifully: The archetypes are meant to offer packages of strengths and weaknesses to support and complement your personal play style. My shots may often land on pine straw or in a fairway bunker, but thanks to the Woodsman archetype and its shot-shaping benefits, I don’t feel like all is lost when they do — and in fact, I’ve managed to save par in many of those cases.
The same customization-based design philosophy applies throughout MyCareer, but it’s less successful outside the realm of archetypes. The experience points you earn by playing tournaments aren’t used to directly upgrade your player’s attributes, like in a typical role-playing game (or in, say, a standard career mode in a sports game). Instead, you get a single skill point every time you level up, and you use the points to unlock and upgrade skills.
To avoid getting too far into the weeds (or woods) here, I’ll just say that almost all of the skills take effect only on a situational basis: They’ll either activate when you’re struggling and deactivate once you regain your form, or activate when you’re doing well and deactivate if you don’t keep it up. And as you level up a skill, it activates more easily and stays active for longer.
While the concept is sound, this setup makes the entire skill system feel inert. The first skill for hybrid clubs, Gusto, seems eminently valuable: When you’re mired in heavy rough, your shots will fly farther. But at level 1 of the skill, it only takes effect if you happen to be hitting into a headwind of at least 15 mph — an exceedingly rare combination of circumstances, in my experience. Because it takes a while to earn skill points, I’m not inclined to waste my precious few points on a skill that I don’t expect to get much use out of, even if there are more desirable ones locked farther along that branch of the tree.
Personalization is also the driving force behind club fittings, the most significant (and concrete) method of improving your performance in PGA Tour 2K23. Fittings are parts of a golf club — head, shaft, or grip — that you can equip to magnify its attributes. Each one has a level of rarity attached to it, as with loot in a game like Destiny 2; the more rare it is, the stronger its effects. Attaching an “uncommon” head to a wedge might boost its power rating by 6 points while also dropping its timing attribute by 2.
Unlike in PGA Tour 2K23’s basketball sibling, NBA 2K, you can’t spend real-world money to power up your athlete, thankfully — at least not by buying fittings, since you receive them only as random drops. Virtual Currency, 2K Sports’ real-money currency (called “coins” here), is used primarily to purchase items like licensed clothes and gear from companies such as Adidas and Mizuno, none of which affect gameplay.
However, a pay-to-win element does creep into the game with respect to fittings: It costs coins to equip them to each club. The charge for attaching a legendary shaft to an iron is 150 coins, so I had to spend 900 coins to outfit all six of the irons in my bag. Considering the slow rate at which you earn coins through play — something like 250 coins if you can manage to finish in one of the top spots of a tournament — you may end up staring longingly at a collection of fittings that you’ve unlocked but can’t afford to equip.
The real bummer here is that I’ve had to spend so many words analyzing all that ancillary stuff, because once I’m playing a hole in PGA Tour 2K23, most of those nuisances fade away. This is a true-playing golf game — I had a devil of a time with the steep greens at Los Angeles’ Riviera Country Club, and I’ve found it tremendously satisfying to craft and execute shots. The unforgiving difficulty of the swing mechanics, coupled with the game’s complicated system of fittings and skills, can lead to more frustration than fun. But when it all comes together, and I manage to pull out a birdie just when I need one to hold off a challenger on the leaderboard, it makes for thrilling moments of fist-pumping glory.
Perhaps I’m just too much of a casual gamer for the PGA Tour 2K series. To wit: I played many hours of PGA Tour 2K21 and didn’t remember having trouble with its swing mechanics — but when I booted up that game to check the options, I realized that I had disabled the downswing timing setting. At some point, I must’ve gotten frustrated enough to give up on the challenge (and the associated boost to the rate at which you earn XP). I’d also love to be able to save-scum, but that’s not an option: Due to the integration of VC, this is an always-online game by default, so it saves your progress with each stroke, with no allowances for mulligans.
It seems like my best bet — if I want to more fully enjoy my time with PGA Tour 2K23 — would be to turn off downswing timing. Either that, or it might be time to put this franchise on my personal “I don’t need this stress in my life” list, right next to Elden Ring.
PGA Tour 2K23 was released Oct. 14 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by 2K Sports. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.