This was supposed to be the weekend of The Masters, but instead it’s the weekend of the fifth installment of the Deadspin Sports Quarantine Nintendo Club, where nobody gets a green jacket. Maybe just green sweatpants.
Following adventures with Ice Hockey, 10-Yard Fight, RBI Baseball, and Double Dribble, this is the first time I’ve played a game where it’s not me against the computer, but me against myself. That’s golf for you, just ask Greg Norman.
For me, it’s NES Golf.
A confession before we begin: I don’t like golf. I’ve played three times in my life on real courses, a few more times at the pitch-and-putt at Flushing Meadows Park, and miniature golf a whole bunch. I find the game to be endlessly frustrating, have come to truly resent the environmental implications of golf courses, and find the industry around the sport, catering to a Trumpian ideal, to be gross.
Video golf, though, is fun, especially the legendary Golden Tee, which provided my career highlight in the sport, a hole-in-one at McFadden’s Bar in Pittsburgh back in 2009 – sadly, the video no longer seems to exist.
That hole-in-one came after years of practice. This is the first time I am playing NES Golf.
It’s a simple enough setup, playing with a singular golfer who looks like a cross between Super Mario and John Daly. There’s a bar for shot strength, and the idea is to hit the A button at the peak of the backswing for power, then hit A again within the white strip at the contact point for accuracy. I can do this, I think, as it’s similar to most golf games that have come around since, not to mention a fair amount of other games, like bowling.
I rare back, swing, and miss the white bar completely. The shot curls out of bounds. So, being the sportsman that I am, I decide to take a mulligan and restart the game.
Trying the first shot again, I hit the A button way too soon, and send the ball flying out of bounds again. Having already restarted once, I take a second mulligan.
The third time around, it’s Goldilocks. I get the drive just right – well, close enough to just right – and the drive goes sailing down the first fairway.
As I prepare for my second shot, the screen does not show a distance remaining to the hole, nor does it suggest an appropriate club for where I’m situated. So I have no caddie whatsoever. I’m sure that the driver isn’t the pick here, so I guess a 9-iron. Turns out, I’m right, and I land it on the green (who needs a caddie!). Now it’s time to putt, where the A button starts the action, and the second A button click releases the putt. I leave the birdie try short, but tap in for par.
The second hole proves more of a challenge. I notice that if I hit the ball straight, I’m going to drive it straight into a water hazard, so I tap to the right and avoid it with another beautiful drive. But this time, when I go for the 9-iron, from what looks like a similar distance, it’s way too short. I try the pitching wedge to get the rest of the way there, and come up short again. Another chip gets me on the green. This time, though, I get the putt just right and save bogey.
That’s pretty much the game. I try a 4-wood on the 215-yard, par-3 third hole, miss that hole’s water hazard, but land in a bunker. My chip out isn’t strong enough, but I putt from the fringe, get on the green, and walk off with another bogey. The fourth hole is a par-4 that I reach in two, guess right with a 5-iron on my approach shot, but I slam the birdie putt way too hard and wind up taking a double-bogey to go to +4 on the round.
It’s on the fifth hole that I discover what happens when you really, truly pick the wrong club. It’s a par-5, so after landing my drive on the fairway, I figure that I need another driver shot to get near the green. Nope. I learn that out-of-bounds exists in this game, then learn it again when I drop down to the 4-wood.
The sound effect is the same as when Joshua puts up the error message in the climactic scene of WarGames.I hear it on the 4-wood, the 3-iron, and the 4-iron, before finally landing well short of the green with a 5-iron. It turns out, when the ball goes out of bounds, you don’t get any sense of how far out of bounds you’ve hit the ball. The saving grace of the hole is that I putt home in one, winding up with a 12. The sixth hole, a series of islands, results in another dozen strokes. A strange game, the only winning move is not to play, indeed.
The thing is, though, it’s stupid fun, even as I discover that on the eighth hole, shaped like the British Isles, the trees are all out of bounds, but the patch of grass resembling Ireland is in play. I manage a bogey.
And on the ninth hole, a lengthy 247-yard, par-3, it turns out that a full-strength driver is almost good enough for a hole-in-one. I tap in for a birdie, which no doubt will be the highlight of my round. The celebration of this achievement is a higher-pitched beep than the out-of-bounds alarm.
Maybe that’s the highlight, or maybe the highlight is on the 11th hole, after I bounce my drive off the green and into the water hazard. That’s when the recovery shot comes up with John Daly Mario standing just off the green, driver in hand. Why, yes, it’s Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, only it’s real!
My final score is 138, a mere 66 over par. And yet, I had a much better time than if I had gone out to a real golf course and shot the same. This game is stupid and flawed, but relaxing and fun, which is pretty much what golf is supposed to be, so I’d call that a success.