Links Corner — Course Details for ShadowLands G.C

LINKS CORNER REVIEW

Reviewed by Mike Nifong

January 2003

Course type: ShadowLands is a parkland/woodland-style course situated “on sand based soil similar to courses such as Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Royal Melbourne and many other classic courses.”

Historical perspective: As hard as it may be to imagine now, there was a time when the name Mike Jones did not provoke that automatic response of awe. During the early days of the APCD, when I (like nearly everyone else) was on dial-up, I was just not willing to make the investment of time (and frustration with failed attempts, and marital discord for tying up the telephone lines) in a new designer until I had read a favorable review of his work either here or at Crusader’s site. So I cannot say exactly what it was that made me download DriftWood Golf Club as soon as it was made available back in February 2001. Perhaps it was the sheer audacity of a 56MB download size at a time when the average APCD course weighed in at around 20MB; perhaps it was the “everyman” quality of his then-unrecognized name. (Who among us has not known several people with the name Mike Jones? There were two in my law school class of just over 200.) Whatever it was, I found the first paragraph of the read-me file (yes, I once read them before I played the course!) very encouraging: at least the designer knew something about the game. But as soon as the splash screen came up, I knew that I had stumbled upon something special. And after a few holes, I actually called my wife up to take a look at it – the first time I had ever done that.

Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Mike Jones has gone on to become, I would venture to say, the most famous artist in the APCD medium, and about the harshest criticism you will ever hear of any of his courses is that it is not quite as good as _____(take your pick here of whatever your favorite Mike Jones course is). So it is fitting that it is he who decided to be the first designer to test the troubled waters of the new Microsoft EULA that allows designers to charge for their work. I do not want to spend a lot of time on the underlying controversy – it has been rehashed ad nauseum in the various LC forums – but I will state for the record that I have absolutely no problem with designers issuing pay-to-play courses, or with personally paying for the ones I want. And certainly if any APCD designer can be successful selling courses is Mike. But it seems to me that the more interesting aspect of this controversy is the amazingly nominal fee that is being charged: if Mike Jones is going to charge only $2.99 for his courses, will any other designer have the “testicular fortitude” to charge more? I suspect that Mike’s decision is more likely to create a ceiling than a floor, and I wonder if the people who have been complaining about having to pay for something they had grown accustomed to getting for free realize the full extent of the benefit his lack of greed will likely cause ultimately to inure to them. But I digress – on to the course!

What is included: Not surprisingly, considering both the identity of the designer and the pioneering nature of the enterprise, ShadowLands is an exceptionally complete package. Both the “standard” accoutrements (cameo and splash screens) and the “extras” exhibit the consummate artistry that is the hallmark of every Mike Jones design. The read-me file, while certainly not groundbreaking, provides more than usual insight into the design philosophy at work here. The hole previews are just about as effectively realized as imaginable from the standpoints of both artistic quality and informational value, making this course one of the few that I can actually feel comfortable playing without the top camera – although the top camera views are so attractive I still prefer to leave it activated for aesthetic reasons. As you would undoubtedly expect from an IRL professional golfer, the tournament options are outstanding. There is also a recorded round included (which I have not yet explored).

How it looks: If you have played any of Mike’s other courses (and if you have not, this must be your first visit to Links Corner), you will have some idea of what to expect here. I have yet to find anything on any of his offerings that struck me as a flaw, and that meticulous execution is everywhere in evidence at ShadowLands. And as you would have undoubtedly guessed, this is no mere 2001 course with shadows. Not only has full advantage been taken of all of the advances enabled by the introduction of APCD 1.5 – things such as higher resolution textures, texture blending, and water shading options – but they have also been used to an extent that far exceeds their application in any previous course. This is especially true of the unprecedented use of texture blending, which is used not simply to soften transitions, but to actually recreate the look of a real sand-based course:

You won’t find “picture perfect” pastel green fairways and rough at ShadowLands. Dry spots on crests of hills, worn areas where golfing traffic is heaviest, patches of dry grass in the rough, moss patches in the deeper grass. You will see this and more.

This remarkable attention to detail is nowhere more evident than in the bunkers:

Not only are the top and bottom lips both blended to create a realistic dirt lip but the inside of the bunker is blended too. Why? Have you ever noticed that many bunkers hold moisture at the bottom of the bunker leaving the sloping sides of the bunker to dry out? This makes for a subtle darker shade at the bottom of the bunker. You’ll see this at ShadowLands.

Of course, not everything that makes this course so special is merely a function of APCD technique. To an even greater extent than usual, Mike’s artistic vision is on display. The planting is as perfect as one can imagine, the use of color sublime in its restraint. The ponds and streams are the best I have ever seen in Links. And everywhere there are special touches: the wooden stairs that lead up the hill behind the green on #4, the slate walkway in front of the tee on #6, just to name a couple.

Two other things are deserving of special mention. One is the planting of the crowds. I have remarked before that the return of shadows in Links2003 has been a mixed blessing for the tournament option, since the crowd figures cast none. This can lead to some visual anomalies that I often find distracting. In ShadowLands, however, Mike has virtually eliminated this problem by taking the time to plant the people in places and on textures where their “shadowlessness” does not call attention to itself, making the use of the crowds an actual enhancement for the first time since Links2003 was introduced.

The other really special thing about this course is the sound. Contrary to the near-universal feeling that the sound engine in Links2003 was hopelessly compromised, Mike has created a sound environment for ShadowLands that surpasses any previous effort in the history of the Links franchise. Everything about the sound script is perfect: effects, locations, volume. Amazing!

And the icing on the cake is that all of this has been achieved in a 65MB download that generates only an 8.54MB shadow file. For that investment in hard drive space, you get the most palpably real computer golfing experience one can have – at least until Mike’s next course.

A brief introduction to the course layout:

#1 (Par 4; 381/342/309 yards; HC 17): As was the case with Driftwood, ShadowLands goes easy on us at the start. The fairway widens in the landing area, so the driver is actually favored off the tee, but to gain the best angle for the approach shot, one must flirt with the dangers down the right side. The elevated green is relatively flat, so an opening birdie is a good possibility.

#2 (Par 5; 517/456/452 yards; HC 13): The gentle beginning continues with this short par-5, which doglegs left. Here the fairway narrows in the 250-290 yard range, with bunkers left and right, so a 3W is the best choice off the tee even though it leads to a longer approach shot. The green is easily reachable in two and is again relatively flat, sloping slightly toward the back. An excellent chance for birdie or better, this hole proved to be one of the easier holes regardless of playing conditions for the AI players.

#3 (Par 3; 188/156/130 yards; HC 9): Although slightly shorter than #16, this effectively plays as the longest par-3 because of the elevations. The green is well protected by bunkers on the left and slopes gently from front to back, so a left front pin placement can be challenging. Not exactly a tough hole, but the difficulty level is beginning to pick up.

#4 (Par 4; 463/431/360 yards; HC 5): This hole, a dogleg to the right, looks quite open off the tee, but looks can be deceiving. The slope to the right conceals not only the pin, but also the deep bunkers on that side of the fairway. The widest (and safest) landing area is straight ahead in the 275-295 yard range. The approach shot can also be tricky: the fairway slopes sharply away from the front of the elevated and tiered green, so anything short will roll back toward you, but the green is also very deep with the low tier at the back, so anything long will leave you a monster putt.

#5 (Par 4; 407/378/344 yards; HC 7): This hole features the first significant elevation change (a drop of 26 feet) and the first water, although the pond to the right is not directly in play. The bunker in the center of the fairway in the 250-265 yard range can usually be carried off the tee, and your ball will get some added distance from the slope, leaving you a probable wedge to the green, which is elevated and well bunkered in front.

Before we leave this hole, I want to mention the pond again, because it marks the location of the “bonus hole” about which you have undoubtedly heard. If, while in practice mode, you drag your ball over to the bank (this is easiest in the top camera view) and rotate your golfer about 80є to the right, you will see a green with a special pin on the other side of the pond. (Some minor readjustment of the ball position to get it behind the tee markers will probably be necessary, as will some fine-tuning with your aiming marker. Your lie indicator will show the distance to the #5 pin, so do not rely on it.) A long LW or a short SW, and a little luck, might net you an ace and a chance to win a Ping putter. [I aced it on my fourth try, but not again in 30 or so additional attempts, although I have left at least half a dozen shots hanging on the lip. Maybe I’ll try again when I finish this review.»>

#6 (Par 3; 136/131/113 yards; HC 15): The shortest hole on the course (not counting the bonus hole), this one looks really easy from the tee, but watch out. The problem is that there is no safe place to miss the clover-shaped, elevated green, so it is a lot safer to aim for the middle and take your chances on the putt than to go right at the pin. For the AI players, this proved to be one of the easiest holes in b/m/m/m conditions, but tied for the most difficult in w/f/f/d conditions.

#7 (Par 4; 481/442/364 yards; HC 1): The longest of the par-4’s, this tough hole proved to be well deserving of its #1 handicap. To have a decent angle for your approach shot, you have to risk the heavy rough and the double bunker in the 260-295 yard range on the right side, and the green can be hard to hold even if your approach is from the fairway. For the AI players, this was one of the toughest holes regardless of conditions. Par is a good score.

#8 (Par 5; 635/596/561 yards; HC 11): The longest hole on the course, and the only par-5 that is absolutely not reachable in two, this dogleg left nonetheless offers a bit of a respite between the two most frightening holes on the front nine. A well-placed third shot to the tiered green is the key to a birdie opportunity here.

#9 (Par 4; 430/403/383 yards; HC 3): The first of three consecutive holes where water is in play, and despite its undeniable beauty, that is not good news. (Someone in one of the LC forums aptly referred to these holes as the Amen Corner of ShadowLands.) Although the tee shot is technically not especially difficult, the expanse of water on the left and the corresponding heavy rough on the right will cause most human golfers (myself included) some anxious moments. A front or left pin placement can make the approach shot just as intimidating. Interestingly, this was pretty much a par hole for the AI golfers – I guess they are not as subject to intimidation as humans.

#10 (Par 3; 150/135/101 yards; HC 18): Another seemingly simple par-3 that can play much tougher than the handicap would suggest (under moderate conditions, the AI golfers were a total of +4 during one round). With the green protected by water on three sides and tiered to the left, your best bet is to aim for the center; that way, at least, you should do no worse than par.

#11 (Par 4; 448/426/404 yards; HC 4): Another tough choice off the tee. In order to have a good angle for your approach shot, you need to place your drive on the left side of the fairway. That, of course, happens to be where the water is. At least your approach shot won’t get wet here, but otherwise the challenge is similar to that posed by #9.

#12 (Par 4; 405/366/324 yards; HC 10): If you survived the last three holes, #12 comes as something of a relief. But although there is less trouble to get into here, the wide green is not particularly amenable to birdies unless you are close to the pin.

#13 (Par 5; 535/500/487 yards; HC 12): Water again, but of a different sort: this time a stream cuts diagonally across the fairway, squeezing you a little more the farther you try to take your tee shot. Assuming that you are successful, there is more water behind the green, so you have to be careful not to get too much on your second shot. A good chance for an eagle, an excellent chance for a birdie, if you reach the green in two, which you probably cannot do if you play it safe off the tee. [RTS-Champ players, like me, be forewarned: if you have a healthy tailwind, it is not at all difficult to drive right through even the longest part of the fairway into the stream if you get your CHS too high. And on the approach shot in those conditions, you might want to take one club less than you think you need for the same reason.»> The best of the par-5’s, this hole proved to be one of the toughest for the AI players in w/f/f/d conditions, one of the easiest in b/m/m/m conditions.

#14 (Par 4; 459/445/357 yards; HC 2): This time you have sand all the way down the right side of the fairway, which also curves and narrows in such a way that going too far left is also not an attractive option. From the fairway, the approach is not too difficult, but a bad lie will bring the stream in front of the tiered green into play. The AI players had some trouble here, and the #2 handicap is deserved.

#15 (Par 4; 413/387/299 yards; HC 6): This dogleg right requires a fade off the tee to gain both sufficient distance and the optimum angle for an easy approach. It failed to live up to its handicap for the AI players, though, playing relatively easy even in w/f/f/d conditions.

#16 (Par 3; 201/170/146 yards; HC 16): A simple but lovely hole, perhaps the most straightforward on the course, although the 42’ drop in elevation can make club selection a bit tricky. For the AI players, this hole, in keeping with its handicap, played easy regardless of conditions.

#17 (Par 4; 353/321/254 yards; HC 8): What looks relatively simple from the tee may turn out not to be so, because this hole features ShadowLands’ most challenging green. Fortunately, the approach shot will likely be a LW, so sticking it close is a possibility. This hole gave the AI players fits with f/f greens and difficult pins.

#18 (Par 5; 557/523/512 yards; HC 14): The gentle finish comes as a welcome relief. A reachable par-5 on which an eagle is possible and a birdie likely, #18 proved to be the easiest hole overall for the AI players, regardless of conditions.

How it plays: It has always seemed to me that one of the greatest strengths of any Mike Jones design is how thoroughly and convincingly it conveys the sense that it is a real golf course. And while his artistry is certainly a factor in that portrayal, I would suggest that the real key is the near-perfect balance that he achieves in each of his courses. No showmanship, no “you haven’t seen anything yet” exhibitionism, no attempt to trump himself on the next hole. Instead, he allows his courses to ebb and flow in the same way that life itself ebbs and flows: turn the pressure up a little, back it off and let you catch your breath. After all, even a roller coaster has some slow sections. Consequently, playing a Mike Jones course is not about overpowering the design. Oh, I suppose you could play it that way – he is not the kind of designer who takes the driver out of your hands, for instance. It is just that playing his courses that way misses the point, because the real challenge to ShadowLands is in how you make your choices, of which he provides a myriad, and your ultimate success is a gestalt of those individual choices.

Even by Mike Jones’ standards, ShadowLands is an uncommonly nuanced course. You could play it a dozen times and never play a hole the same way twice. What works perfectly in one set of circumstances may lead to disaster if the conditions are subtly changed. [And, at least playing RTS, you can never really hit the same shot twice anyway.»> This is a course for which your respect only grows after you have lived with it for a while.

One more thing that I have to mention: for me, at least, ShadowLands actually seemed to enhance my game. The first time I played it, I had the best round (especially around the greens) that I had had in weeks. And I don’t just mean that my scores were lower; I actually played better than usual against the AI competition. I have a theory about why that was: ShadowLands is so much more immersive than the average Links course that your concentration is enhanced, your attention less likely to stray.

For those of you seeking a more objective evaluation, I have prepared the usual AI stats. You should note that what follows will not be directly comparable to similar listings in my previous reviews due to a change in methodology. [I decided that the pro anis were just too “good” to provide any useful comparisons, so I have created four test anis: each has an overall skill level of 79.0, but each has a different combination of strengths, weaknesses, and aggressiveness. The 79.0 level was chosen because it represents an AI golfer who will normally beat me by a few strokes, but who is not out of reach if I play well.»> Under b/m/m/m conditions, the AI foursome were a combined -21 (-3 to -9), hitting 78% of the fairways (64-92%) and 72% of the greens (55-94%), and averaging 25.5 putts (23-27). Under w/f/f/d conditions, they were a combined -12 (-2 to -4), hitting 69% of the fairways (57-78%) and 66% of the greens (55-83%), and averaging 26 putts (24-28).

The bottom line: Quite simply put, ShadowLands Golf Club is the most fully realized course ever created for any golf simulation, and it should be considered an essential acquisition for every devotee of this game. For those of you who are opposed to the concept of pay-to-play courses on “principle,” I would just point out (as my wife so often does to me) that stubbornness is not really a principle. Failure to avail yourselves of this opportunity is your loss.

Course Statistics.

Course statistics: Par 72; 3 sets of tees (7159/6608/5900 yards); holes are handicapped.

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