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In a world in which computers crunch our numbers and process our words, the biggest beneficiary of the silicon age may not be the accountant or the writer but the aspiring golfer. Consider: You may not be able to hit the side of a barn in real life, but with an electronic golf simulation you can launch pure two-irons. What better use for a computer chip?
The best games on the market take full advantage of the powerful multimedia capabilities of today's home computers. Try, for example, Links LS (Access Software, CD-ROM for PC, $79.95). This simulation uses photos and videos of actual courses and players that have been converted into digital information and then programmed for the computer. The result is an eye-popping video game with crisp graphics and stereo sound that tracks with the action. When your ball hits a tree in the distance, the thunk! seems to come from somewhere in your backyard.
The controls are so easy to master that you can tee off right away, but they're sophisticated enough for you to fiddle with any part of your game. Adjust your stance and address to compensate for that deadly hook. Play draws and fades. Change the color of your shirt. The details are wonderful: Tees break after drives, birds chirp in the background, fog rolls in during inclement weather.
Links LS comes with three courses: the two at Hawaii's Kapalua Resort and Arnold Palmer's home course, Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club. Images of Palmer have been digitized, so you can play with Arnie or even as him. Future companion discs will allow you to add new courses and other legendary golfers.
Like Links, PGA Tour 96 ( Electronic Arts, CD-ROM for PC and Sony PlayStation, $59.95) re-creates the nuances of the game, but whereas Links drops you into a weekend outing with a group of hacker buddies, PGA Tour pits you against the top pros in a tense tournament atmosphere. Fourteen PGA Tour pros, including Davis Love III and Lee Janzen, were videotaped and programmed into this game, as were two PGA Tour courses: TPC at Avenel and Spyglass Hill. (Two other courses, TPC at Sawgrass and The Links at Spanish Bay, are also available, with more planned.)
PGA Tour's graphics, while excellent, aren't as realistic as those of Links, and the feeling of control over your golfer isn't quite as complete. But nothing can top PGA Tour's simulated competition. The interface is designed to mimic a television broadcast, so shots are shown from multiple camera angles, and an analyst provides hushed and pointed commentary.
If yanking out the biggest club in your bag and ripping off a monster tee shot is what appeals to you, there is Lunar Golf ( Berkeley Systems, CD-ROM for PC, $39.95), a wacky game that lets you tee it up on the moon's surface. You play on a standard par-72, 18-hole course that is highlighted by some decidedly nonstandard distances: the 3rd hole is a 2,190-yard par-5. The safe play would be to hit a half-mile drive down the left edge of the fairway, but if you want to go for it, you can bust a 1,000-yard tee shot along the right side and aim for the flag (marked by a giant laser beacon) in two. Just avoid those mammoth dust traps in the lunar craters.
This program could have come off as silly, but instead the game is so witty and irreverent that the entire galactic experience proves captivating. As you survey the eerie lunar landscape from the tee, all you hear inside your helmet is Darth Vader-like breathing. After your swing, a static-filled transmission from mission control comes through: "Copy. Ball is in flight. We read a four percent overswing, two degrees off-target." To get the idea, imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed with Caddyshack.
For sheer kicks, the rush of hitting a drive 1,000 yards is unparalleled. In the end it's simply a novelty, but who says golf—especially computer golf—can't take a new approach, one that may draw in people who don't play real golf? Anyone who can open a word-processing file can play these games and learn about strategy, competition and the thrill of hitting a ball on the screws. Maybe years from now we'll look back on games like Lunar Golf and realize that though they were one small step for golf, they were one giant leap for hackerkind.