You can look at all the photographs you want of the world's great golf courses, but the best way to experience them short of traveling there is through a couple of computer games. Microsoft's Links and EA Sports's Tiger Woods PGA Tour each allow you to play nineteen or more top tracks, and the detail is mind-blowing, as the courses are rendered from actual GPS data. Whether you want to relive a favorite round or learn a layout you've only dreamed of playing, this is serious fun. Two other popular titles allow you to either break all the rules (Outlaw Golf) or design your own course (SimGolf). Are you game?
Microsoft Game Studios, $29.99 (Championship Edition)
Format CD-ROM for Windows XP, Me, 2000 or 98; 400 MHz processor, up to 390 MB hard drive, 128 MB RAM and 16 MB 3-D video card
Comments The truest "swing" here: If you don't concentrate, it's easy to shank one. How realistic are the graphics?Distracted by a flying divot, I lost my ball in the white-gray sky on the first at Kauri Cliffs. You have to hit "continue" and then wait two seconds while a new screen renders after every shot, but it's worth it. Links comes with the Arnold Palmer Course Designer, which requires a 32 MB video card and is less realistic than SimGolf—but it's fun nonetheless. Optional online play. Courses include Oakmont, Troon North, Royal Melbourne, Gleneagles, Pelican Hill, Kapalua's Plantation Course and Cabo del Sol.
Bottom Line Best Value The most realistic graphics of any game here. Plus, it comes with a course designer.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004
EA Sports, $39.99
Format CD-ROM for Windows XP, Me, 2000 or 98; 333 MHz processor, 1.3 GB hard drive, 128 MB RAM and 16 MB 3-D video card
Comments The only game with a partnership with the PGA Tour, it has the most intuitive screens and menus and, of course, Tiger, whom you can compete as or against in match play, stroke play, skins, scramble, you name it. Another plus is Gary McCord and David Feherty calling your shots. McCord: "This putt's gotta go through three continents." Feherty: "We could be incontinent by the time we finish the hole." Only complaint: It's pretty easy to make good shots. Optional online play. Courses include St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2, Bethpage Black, TPC at Sawgrass, Royal Birkdale, Spyglass, Poppy Hills and TPC of Scottsdale.
Bottom Line Best Overall Woods, McCord, Feherty; Pebble, Pinehurst, St. Andrews: What's not to like?
Simon & Schuster Interactive, $19.95
Format CD-ROM for Windows XP, Me, 2000 or 98; 750 MHz processor, 128 MB RAM and 32 MB 3-D video card
Comments If you've ever been so frustrated on the course that you wanted to beat up your caddy, this is the game for you. (Seriously, you can beat up your caddy—it increases your "composure" and makes you play better.) Choose one of ten characters, from a soccer hooligan to a busty blonde. True to its name, Outlaw Golf offers "Fat Edna" drivers and "Cincinnati" irons. But to "swing" you use the outmoded three-click method. Another drawback: If your machine isn't a current model, you may need a new video card to play this. All courses (e.g., Turnpike Valley and Crusty Leaf Country Club) are fictional.
Bottom Line Only if you're more interested in sexy characters and on-course brawling than you are in the golf aspect of the game.
Sid Meier's SimGolf
EA Games, $39.99
Format CD-ROM for Windows 95 or greater; 300 MHz processor, 300 MB hard drive, 128 MB RAM and 8 MB video card
Comments From the creator of the megaselling SimCity, this is the Tom Fazio wanna-be's dream come true. You're given "$100,000" to see how successful a golf resort you can build. Buy some parkland, links, desert or tropical acreage and start with a few holes. Add a clubhouse, hire a staff, and if you're good, your course will blossom as more and more golfers visit. Design replicas of your favorite holes or break new ground in golf architecture. Advanced players can even add a luxury hotel and spa. There is a playing component, but it's very simple. Beware: The game moves fast and is totally habit forming.
Bottom Line The most addictive game here, but if you want to play rather than create courses, you'll want to buy one of the others.