It is Rocket Science


ORLANDO, Fla. – In 1986 we saw the eagle-birdie-birdie run that began on Augusta National’s 15th hole, but not the birdie at the second or the first of three consecutive birdies at the ninth that started Jack Nicklaus’ historic run at Greg Norman and immortality.

In fact, it would be another 16 years after the Golden Bear’s golden Masters moment before any fan not lucky enough to score a ticket would get a good look at the storied club’s front nine, the “Area 51” of major championship golf for decades.

This was an inescapable thought as a small army of EA Sports technicians and programmers – gaming rocket scientist, really – explained the painstaking detail that went into integrating Augusta National’s subtle humps and bumps into “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters,” the newest member of the franchise which launches on March 29 (photo gallery).

“Around the greens we scanned to within 1 millimeter,” one technician said, and one immediately wonders if they could try the same putt, electronically of course, that Nicklaus made on the 17th hole 25 years ago. You can, and much more.

In fact, a new feature called Masters Moments recreates famous shots from the tournament’s past, including Phil Mickelson’s bold second shot off the pine straw at the 13th hole last year. And, yes, even in the virtual world Lefty’s towering 6-iron seems ill-advised yet addictively doable.

EA Sports’ portable scanner has delivered as advertised down to every blade of grass and pine needle. But it wasn’t easy.

It took an EA Sports crew 10 days last August to digitally record Bobby Jones’ masterpiece. Or, to put the process in perspective the techies figured it took about an hour-and-a-half per par to properly scan a hole – and that’s not including the two full days it took to create the proper HD snapshot of Amen Corner.

The result is a virtual Augusta National that is as close to the original as one can get without actually making it onto the property. Everything short of the sprawling depth of the place and dramatic elevations changes, the consensus difference for any first-timer, has been replicated with surprising accuracy.

Not that it should surprise anyone that Augusta National would perfect even the virtual edition. EA Sport’s magicians met regularly with members of the club’s staff, including the superintendent.

Shots were tried and retried, like Woods’ famous chip-in at the par-3 16th hole on his way to victory in 2005, until the game reacted the same way reality would (Read Jay Coffin's take).

In fact, the simulation is spot on almost to a fault. Putts from above the hole at the seventh have no chance of stopping, while tee shots into the 12th that come up short are destined for Rae’s Creek (there is no Fred Couples mode).

Even the club’s Par 3 Course was scanned to perfection, along with the clubhouse, the cabins and the proper vocabulary. It’s not fans, it’s patrons; it’s not rough, it’s second cut; it’s not pins, it’s hole location; and it’s not easy, it’s hard.

Truth is, the game’s greatest accomplishment is immediately evident after playing just a few holes. EA Sports has created a putting contest, just like the real thing.

For decades those watching from home were left to their imaginations to fill in the details. In many ways the masterpiece that was Augusta National was a color-by-numbers if one couldn't land a ticket.

The tee shot at the first hole, the second into the par-5 second hole, all the things that just nine years ago remained a mystery are there in pixelized clarity.

Thanks to EA Sports’ rocket scientist and Augusta National the guess work has been removed. In fact, the only thing “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters” is missing is the chill-inducing drive down Magnolia Lane. But then maybe that’s best, life is always better with a little mystery.

Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard