World Golf Tour goes a fair way toward great play

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Stock market news got you down? Perhaps smacking small round objects in a beautiful setting would soothe your nerves.

World Golf Tour, which enters beta today, is so well-behaved that this reviewer felt like breaking her clubs over her abominable skills rather than the gameplay, and the high-def graphics made me appreciate that she was not on lovely Kiawah Island stinking up a course that gorgeous.

The express purpose of World Golf Tour, as CEO YuChiang Cheng puts it, is to "make elite and famous courses available to everyone," by combining social networking with gameplay. Tournament-style play is also an option, and WGT's already hosted a charity challenge that attracted 900,000 players. The game currently offers two play options: closest-to-pin and the more usual tee-to-greens.

The Ocean Course at South Carolina's Kiawah Island Golf Resort is a real course, of course, and though the game operates as a mere Flash 9 creation, behind the scenes the technology is fancy. The real-world courses were photographed in stereo with helicopters and on the ground, according to Cheng. The thousands of images gathered are GPS-tagged a la Google Street View and mapped into a coordinate system in which every pixel has attributes -- height, condition (water, rough, fairway) and so forth. The company claims that its courses are accurate to within 1.5 inches.

During play, you'll occasionally catch a glimpse of the 3D wireframe to which the images are mapped -- snapping in real time to their correct spatial orientation -- when such data might be useful to get out of a tight spot. Otherwise, it's the beauty of the courses themselves that's distracting; Cheng admits to spending quite a bit of time during development just hitting the ball here and there so he could get a better look at the scenery. (This isn't likely to be an option for players at the offline Kiawah.) In addition, the course-management interface feeds back a great deal of data on what the terrain ahead looks like and what club might be best in your predicament.

A screen shot from the latest beta of World Golf Tour [Click on the photo to see it up-close.]

Off the greens, so to speak, the World Golf Tour site's launching blogs to complement the action on the courses. Teaching pro Josh Zander will be offering tips, including video tutorials; and golf historian and Golf Channel host Peter Kessler will hold forth on the game itself and the people he's met covering it. Rank-and-file site members, meanwhile, can post blog entries and saved replays to their own profile pages, which also lists friends, in-game awards, equipment preferences, and various play stats. Players better than this reviewer can earn tour cards and play for money and prizes.

Best of all for beta purposes, when the product fails, it fails with remarkable grace. Once or twice during testing, a glitch turned up. The game immediately presented a pop-up allowing us to report a bad ball flight or a camera shot that wasn't what it needed to be. The reporting feature could also have been reached with a right-click had it not automatically presented the pop-up. All that says, Cheng explains, goes to improve the algorithms running the show. As beta continues, the algorithm will "grow and learn."

So will the golfers, if they stick with it. Cheng says that courses have been willing to partner with World Golf Tour to attract visitors who will have already formed an attachment to the course even before their first offline visit. The site handles the up-front costs of such digitization in exchange for access to the courses, the designs of which are jealously guarded intellectual property.

No timetable for exiting beta has been announced, but a closest-to-pin round is available free to the public; Cheng says that "90 percent of the content will always be free," with sponsorships, ads, pay-in tournaments and avatar 'extras" funding the site. Further plans for expansion include more courses including Bali Hai Golf Club and Pinehurst Resort.

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