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Lost in Cyberspace

Course editor makes Jack Nicklaus' golf games hub of online community

This article was originally published on July 19, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Golf was one of the first sports to make a successful transition to the personal computer. As far back as the mid-1980s with Access Software's "LeaderBoard" for the Commodore 64 and Atari 800, golf simulations have offered a fairly realistic experience. (In other words, as any readers who golf will know, they're frustrating, cruel and difficult to master.)

"LeaderBoard" set a standard for golf simulations that hasn't changed all that much in the 15 years since – a "swing meter" controls your play, you can view an overhead map of each hole, and the playing view is third-person from just behind the golfer facing down the fairway.

Popular golf simulations since "LeaderBoard" have included various PGA-endorsed games, games from golf stars (including Greg Norman and Tiger Woods), Microsoft Golf, and the best-selling "Links." (For a good working list of current golf sim titles, visit Yahoo's golf games page.)

Web sites where you can find add-on courses for and information on Jack Nicklaus golf games:

Standing out from the pack as far as innovation goes, though, has been a series of games from golfing great Jack Nicklaus. While the Nicklaus games haven't always been the best as far as graphics or realism, they have had something else that's set them apart from the others: They have all included a course editor that lets you build your own courses, beginning with the "Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition" about eight years ago (and maybe even earlier – neither my increasingly fragile memory nor a search of the Web turned up any definitive info on earlier Nicklaus games, though).

Most of the other golf games offer either a handful of built-in courses or force you to purchase any additional courses you may want – those for "Links" can cost $25 and up when first released (but after a few months can often be found in the cut-out bins at the local software store for under $10).

With each new Nicklaus release, though, hundreds of courses have been available for free as users build their own with the course editor and then post them online.

The predictable result of the course editor on the Nicklaus games has been the formation of a large online community built around trading golf courses. For almost a decade, golfing fans have been swapping courses with one another, playing online tournaments (the "Signature Edition" contained the option of playing tournaments on the commercial service Prodigy; newer versions have offered Web-based online multiplayer options), and hosting newsgroups where they trade tips and gossip.

First on computer bulletin board systems and now on Web sites, an online community has been created that helps newcomers, provides resources (bug fixes, program updates, links to other online locations) and maintains FAQ ("frequently asked questions") documents related to the Jack Nicklaus golf series.

And these efforts are independent of any marketing or corporate support provided by the companies that publish the games themselves (first Accolade and now Activision). These are efforts by users of the games, folks who either design the courses themselves or are avid players who collect the add-on courses.

There are already several new add-on courses for "Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge" even though it's only been out a few months and designing a course can take dozens of hours of work. (Earlier courses from "Jack Nicklaus 5" can be converted to version 6 format, and there are hundreds of those version 5 courses already out there.)

Some of the Web sites dedicated to these golf games are quite polished, with frame-based navigation, thumbnail photos linked to larger screen shots, and extensive libraries of courses and patches on FTP sites.

This online community has its own vernacular, with shorthand like JNSE, JN5 and JN6 to indicate various versions of the game through the years. There is a sense of history and appreciation for what's gone before, friendships that have formed online, and even course designers who've gotten to meet Jack Nicklaus through this community (see accompanying interview with veteran course designer Brian Silvernail).

And all because of a decision a decade ago to include a course editor on a golf simulation.

Other computer games have included editing options – an auto racing game from the early '90s, "Stunts," allowed users to create their own tracks, and games such as "SimCity" and "RollerCoaster Tycoon" depend on users creating their own scenarios.

But none have inspired as creative or long-lasting a community as the Jack Nicklaus golf series.