Does more expensive stuff make you better at golf? An unscientific investigation

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I like video games, but I don’t consider myself to be an enthusiastic or avid gamer. Instead, I find that I gravitate towards a few high-comfort games that I play at casual pace for a looooong time. Oddly enough, the shared theme for these high-comfort games seems to be that they are primarily sports simulations. I’m sort of a sports fan, I guess, but I have always had the most fun playing these games by myself, not online. Obviously at the high end they are filled with microtransactions, but also I just don’t have much interest in playing with People From The Internet. Instead - I set the difficulty to its lowest point and try to min-max the game.

Back in the Xbox 360 era, it was Madden NFL 25 - which came out in 2013. I remember watching the Seattle Seahawks completely embarrass Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the 2014 Super Bowl and impulsively decide to buy the game. It served me well for like 6 years, until in 2019 I decided to buy a Nintendo Switch. The Switch era of comfort game for me has been a two-party affair - between MLB The Show 22 and PGA 2K21.

Into the latter, I’ve put something like 200 hours. My personal theory for why I like these games at low difficulty is because they’re basically just concentrated, low-stakes decision-making. Without getting too bio-hacky, I think that there is great utility in being able to make small decisions very quickly, especially in a principled way. Put this way - sports simulation is essentially practice for decision-making, with extremely fast feedback as to whether the decision was a good one.

Anyway - all of this is to say that I’ve been playing a lot of PGA 2K21 lately, and consequently spending a lot of time optimizing the golf bag for things like distance (more is good), loft gapping (consistent/steady is good), and spin (especially in the wedges). This made me wonder - does any of this actually make a difference? I’ve amassed enough in-game currency to buy pretty much anything, but how would I score if I just used the most basic stuff?

The Experiment

I played a round using two player characters - one my usual character, which has all my usual stuff. However - I happen to have two Pro Controllers so I also played a second player which was the default generic player character with default equipment. I set the difficulty identically (VERY easy - the net exp multiplier is 1.42x). For the round, I chose Riviera Country Club with default conditions, from the blue tees.

The Results

My usual character won by one stroke - 57-58 (beating and tying the lowest rounds of professional golf ever)

The final results from the round - my usual character won 57-58

What’s interesting to note here is that the default character had a worse rate of Fairways In Regulation (FIR) (by 7 percentage points) and Green in Regulation (GIR) (by 11 percentage points), but a much lower Putts per Hole (PPH) - 1.17 vs 1.28.

This bears out my experience; I definitely had a few putting disasters using my usual character. On the flip side, the default character had an great short game day - so immense that if you look at the scorecard you’ll see that they had two hole-outs - one for an Ace!

The scorecard from the round

By comparison, my usual character had a measly single hole-out (has such a thing ever been said) - but picked up birdies vs par on the front nine twice! These made the difference.


So - it turns out that you can be quite competitive if you’re just using default equipment. Indeed, the occurence of hole-outs is actually quite regular at the lower level of difficulty - most greenside chip shots that start within ten yards of the hole have a substantial chance to hole out.

All it would take is a few better chips, or a few bad putts for the situation to change quite easily. Coming out this close was somewhat suprising to me, but also it was a fun experience to play out. I’d probably try playing dual controller again at some point.