In no rec league could I ever throw a no-hitter. Alone on a basketball court I'd need half an hour to score 69 points — and a trampoline to dunk. But I can do all of those things in my living room. Video games give us the conceit of doing the impossible, but only now has one demonstrated how hard that really is.
Thirteen years ago, Tiger Woods all but folded space and time in becoming the first man to finish a U.S. Open double digits under par. Casual fans may associate Woods' greatness more with events like The Masters, a modern-day birdiefest that he's won four times. Golfers understand Woods' 2000 U.S. Open is the most dominating performance in major tournament history. His worst round that year was even par (the third) and he won, by 15 strokes, an event that has since seen two champions at five-over.
When it came time to build "Legends of the Majors," the showcase mode of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, the 2000 U.S. Open was atop its designers' list of more than 60 moments the game re-enacts from golf history spanning more than a century. The 2000 U.S. Open played out at Pebble Beach, a course that has been in the game for years. "Obviously, this is a big one," said Justin Patel, a designer on the series. "He won by 15 shots; it's the first leg of the 'Tiger Slam,' which is the closest anyone has gotten to winning any sort of 'Grand Slam' after the amateur championships were included."
Four rounds at par or better and a 15-stroke victory is as taken for granted in golf's video games as four home runs or a hat trick is in baseball's and hockey's — especially if you're playing on the easiest difficulty. Instead, Patel and his cohort slimmed down the challenge to just five holes — Nos. 10 and 12 through 15 at Pebble, aiming at Sunday pin placements. From this, Woods emerged four under par in 2000. To pass the challenge, you only have to go three under, while hitting three greens with a chance to putt for birdie.
I simply could not do it.
"This challenge is definitely up there as one of the toughest in the mode," said Patel, a guy who parlayed his own skill at the game into a job designing it.
I do not play golf in real life and my online game is self-taught, like a virtual Lee Trevino (whose presence in this game I adore). But even if I knew my own strength on a 5-iron versus a 6 or a 4, or could divine the influence of the impossible wind on the Monterey peninsula, there still is no way in hell I could aim at the flag on No. 12 at Pebble Beach and still hit its green, guarded by the second-most loathsome front-side bunker known to man. The most loathsome is on the par-5 No. 14 at the same course. On the rest, you may make the green in regulation, but it's rakishly tilted hard, toward the Pacific Ocean. You feel like you're putting inside a Batman hideout from the 1960s show.
This is in a video game. Patel conceded that their pin placements are not 100 per cent true to what Woods was shooting at in 2000. Still, instead of jumping up and down and throwing things and cursing the wind — cursing the wind in a video game! — I just put down my Xbox 360 controller, wondering how in the hell Tiger Woods did this in real life.
Sports video games offer these kinds of challenges all the time. NBA 2K11 memorably asked you to recreate Michael Jordan's greatest feats as a player — a mode that, I argue, shows how Jordan's showstopping talent seems more video-game-like than natural. But dropping 63 points on the Celtics, or scoring six goals in football, or tossing a perfect game — more than 1,500 were thrown in MLB 2K13 last month — is not the same, even in a video game.
Those performances, as they do in real life, often depend upon the quality of the opposition, and their ease scales as you dial down the difficulty. In real life, a straight-sets victory to win the last round of the U.S. Open of tennis, most recently seen in 2008, can be attributed to an overmatched lower seed or an opponent on a bad day. But a golf course commits no unforced errors. It presents a consistent and unrelenting demand. And in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, it is video gaming's ultimate boss battle.
"Legends of the Majors" is rife with difficulty spikes — an historical mode necessarily is. If you're going chronologically through a sports's most impressive performances — and the challenges in "Legends of the Majors" unlock sequentially — the toughest cannot be saved for last. I asked Patel if game testers complained about particular episodes or recommended their difficulty be scaled down.
"There were definitely a few challenges that we had to make easier," Patel said. "Most notably was the 'Shot Heard ‘Round the World' by Gene Sarazen [at the 1935 Masters]. This challenge initially called for you to hole out the double eagle as a pass condition. There were a few others that were made easier as well. Arnold Palmer in high winds [at the 1961 British Open] and one of the [Jack] Nicklaus challenges [probably at the '66 Masters] are a couple off the top of my head. The compromises still made sense from a historical point of view and made the mode more enjoyable for the casual user."
But there was no compromising on the 2000 U.S. Open. These were the only holes Woods birdied in his final round. Shooting par is an achievement at any U.S. Open, where the grass grows longer and the fairways are pinched tighter, but par is not an interesting video game challenge. So it had to come down to these five holes.
I finally beat the 2000 U.S. Open in Legends of the Majors on Friday. I don't liken the feat to any skill, learned or innate, but more to brute force calculation, like a Cray busting down an encrypted site. I just got lucky with the wind at my back on No. 15, which allowed me to pitch into the Riddler's hideout and ram a six foot putt downhill for birdie. Thank God. I will never do that again. Even if I tried.
Fewer than 7,500 people, worldwide, have completed this challenge — three under par, three greens in regulation on this five-hole series — according to EA Sports' own telemetry. Fewer than 2,100 have done it on "Legend" difficulty, which means they bettered his performance on the same stretch of holes.
Remember I was doing this on Amateur difficulty. I'm still honored to be one of the winners. I came away from it with a newfound respect for Tiger Woods, and for a sport often presented on television as so effortless, if not unathletic, or something disparaged as a casual pursuit of the wealthy.
I don't know that I'd come to the same appreciation with my own set of clubs on a real course. I don't know that I have the same appreciation for any other sport — including the ones I've played.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.