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A Game of Pixels

A masterful re-creation of Augusta National. And a controversy unlike any other in the world of online golf
Golf: 2018 Masters Golf Tournament Round One Augusta National Golf Club/Augusta, GA, USA 4/5/2018 X161845 TK1 Credit: Kohjiro Kinno

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Elevation changes: It’s the same worn chestnut CBS and Golf Channel offer up to viewers every year. But it keeps getting pointed out to the uninitiated, like LeVasseur, because it also happens to be true. If you haven’t been to Golf Disneyland, then you can’t be prepared for that climb up the 18th or the drop down No. 10, the 495-yard Camellia, where every righty tries to play a running hook off the tee and Bubba Watson famously defied physics en route to his first tear-filled champion’s interview. You can’t possibly know what it’s like, because you haven’t been. You have to walk the course to truly understand. It’s the only way. But when LeVasseur actually found himself on that 10th tee box, he realized he might be the exception. 

“Not to be arrogant about it,” he says now of the memory, “but I’ve spent so long studying this course that once I got there nothing surprised me.”

To friends and family, LeVasseur is merely a sports nut who happens to make his living off of one of his passions. He spent half a decade grinding in the film room for the Detroit Pistons, spending long hours pre- and post-game studying tape for little pay, before taking a job in Chicago with a software company that makes products for basketball coaches. “Growing up, basketball and golf were 1A and 1B,” he says. 1A became his career; 1B became his hobby. It’s also how he came to be known by a different name: the CLV.

For the diehards who play The Golf Club, a video game made by HB Studios in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the CLV is a celebrity. In this corner of the golf universe, he is the premier golf course reconstructionist in the world. 

The first iteration of The Golf Club was released in 2014. The small team of HB designers had spent years as the technical brains for much-larger developer EA Sports and its flagship golf game, Tiger Woods. Then Woods became a tabloid magnet, EA lost interest in making games for golfers and HB realized it had a set of skills larger manufacturers were no longer interested in. So it made its own game. Without the budget to officially license real courses like St. Andrews or Pebble Beach, HB instead built an in-depth course design option. Perhaps a few dedicated gamers would come up with some passable replacements. Over the next four years, the tiny team in Lunenburg learned a valuable, profitable lesson: If you give golf fanatics the right tools, they can create on a level no one thought possible.

They acquired design plans for their local tracks and rebuilt them to perfect scale. They constructed courses they could only dream of playing. No railway assets existed in the course designer, but perfect railroads were fashioned with benches, upturned fences and other spare digital parts. Hours appeared to be the only obstacle in any architecture challenge. 

If you talk with enough amateur video-game golf course designers, you start to hear the same pattern over and over again: an obsession with playing the game at an early age; a habit of doodling fairways and greens between rounds when they should be paying attention in class. And then they find a virtual outlet. For LeVasseur, it started with some “bad Sega Genesis” game whose name he can’t even remember. Then the Links franchise. Then Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf, which came with the first course designer he’d ever seen. “That’s when I first started turning what used to be scribbles on a piece of paper into something real,” he says.

While in college, LeVasseur made his first two designs, but it was a slog. The antiquated technology forced him to make his own grass in Photoshop, then transfer it over to the game’s design tool. “I sucked at it,” he says. “I was just biding my time for an easier tool to come out.” Then he found The Golf Club.

When asked about his highlights in the Pistons film room, LeVasseur mentions the time he got to play 3-on-3 versus a “high as shit” Justin Bieber, who had a concert in the arena that night. And the time glass-cleaning machine Ben Wallace called LeVasseur “a rebounding motherfucker.” But for the sake of what he’d come to be known for later, the most important skill LeVasseur picked up during those years was an obsession with spotting minute details. He spent hours every day staring at a screen for work, then came home and chose to do the same thing, only for a different purpose.

LeVasseur’s design philosophy was simple: He wanted to make the courses he thought he might never have a chance to play. The Old Course, Merion and Oakmont. And, of course, Augusta.

“Everybody and their uncle was trying to create Augusta and nobody seemed to be making anything close  to the real course,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘If there’s one course that deserves to be perfectly done, that’s it.’”

To LeVasseur, perfect meant time. He went to the Masters website and studied every hole’s flyover video. Most had a 360-degree camera view off the tee; some had the same on the green; some even had it in the middle of the fairway. By the time he was finished, on Jan. 15, 2015, LeVasseur had spent nearly half a year and hundreds of hours attempting to get every detail right. Immediately the community that had grown up around The Golf Club took notice. To this day, LeVasseur’s Augusta—which he named “Magnolia National” to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit—is by far the game’s highest-rated course. At last count, Magnolia National had hosted some 500,000 rounds. LeVasseur has since designed nearly 30 recreations, all of them lauded and all of them used to build his case as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Yes, there is a TGC Designer Hall of Fame.) But Magnolia National was different. It was his masterpiece. There were just a few tiny kinks that needed straightening.

Starting last year, LeVasseur went back to work. He visited Augusta. Much to his wife’s chagrin, he kept all four rounds of televised coverage on his DVR just so he could chart every pin position and the break of every putt. He even started employing a secret weapon: Google Image searches of caddie yardage books. Cameras were getting so good that LeVasseur could steal slopes and figures from the very tools used by the pros. Maybe it didn’t matter to most people that the previous year’s Thursday pin on the lower shelf of the 13th green was actually, according to the numbers LeVasseur had purloined from one yardage book, “quite slow,” while anything on the front right was “extremely fast.” It mattered to him. And to obsessives like him.

Late at night, after long days at work and while his wife was asleep, LeVasseur put in the time to make Magnolia National the best it could be. It was all in preparation for the upcoming Masters, to be played by The Golf Club’s best players on the game’s most competitive tour. Who soon learned they wouldn’t be playing their favorite course.The trouble began with a post from Smurf_Blade88. “I have heard from a few people that the course version were (sic) using for the masters this year is a new one done by Royce,” he wrote a few weeks before the year’s first major. “The look and feel of Magnolia is outstanding and it plays great. The new version has ridiculous greens that a (sic) tricked up with dodgy pin positions and severe sloping around the hole. I don’t see the need for this potential change and for me it would partly ruin my enjoyment of playing in the event. If this course has been chosen I would strongly recommend a rethink Doyley.”

“Doyley” was Scott Doyle. And he had a feeling there might be trouble.

For the previous three years, Doyle had helped run a site called TGC Tours. When The Golf Club first came out, Doyle was immediately hooked. Like LeVasseur and so many other TGC players, Doyle didn’t have time to play real-life golf as much as he wanted. He was a father of two and an assignment editor for Sportsnet in Toronto, Canada’s ESPN. “You can golf at 11 o’clock when the kids are in bed and not spend four hours away from them in the middle of the day,” he explains. Golf video games helped scratch the itch. And nothing scratched it like TGC. He had only one problem with it. 

Shoestring operation that it was, HB Studios didn’t include a career mode where you create a player, name it something ridiculous if you so choose (Smurf Blade, perhaps?), have it compete against others and compile its stats over a virtual career to take that golfing avatar to heights you could only dream of. So Doyle built his own. 

A simple spreadsheet soon caught the notice of two other TGC obsessives, both of whom also had chops designing websites. Suddenly Doyle was helping to run the first online Q School. He and his fellow TGC Tours creators expected a hundred or so people to show up. They thought they would have enough players for three tours. When 500 entered, they were shocked. The community was bigger than they thought.

Today that community numbers roughly 1,300 players, who compete every week across 11 different tours. TGC Tours is a ladder system. The best of the best play on the World Tour. One rung below that is the PGA. Then the Euro and onward down the line until you reach something called Challenge Circuit Amateur Z. 

For the 70 members of the prestigious World Tour, every week brings a new tournament, just like the real-life pro tours. And because thousands of people have spent millions of collective hours building HB Studios its own fleet of unlicensed golf-course recreations, World Tour players get to compete on near-perfect replicas of those same courses the pros play. Just like in the pros, majors matter more. Every year, the Masters meant LeVasseur’s Magnolia National. So when Doyle and his fellow decision-makers dropped the bomb that LeVasseur’s masterpiece would be shelved in favor of an unknown first-timer’s attempt at Augusta, things got heated fast.

Smurf Blade (real identity: Brian Murphy of Ireland) was merely the blue canary in the coal mine. Soon every forum on TGC Tours was lighting up with news of the controversy. “It was like a web,” says Doyle. “It just spread everywhere.” Doyle’s reasoning for the move was fairly straightforward: Google Image searches of yardage books or not, LeVasseur had built Magnolia National in the first iteration of the game. That left him at a disadvantage. 

Royce’s version was built using the more advanced tools available in The Golf Club 2, and Doyle thought the plotting was just a smidge more accurate. But Magnolia National fans were outraged. Royce’s greens were tricked up, they claimed. LeVasseur, on the other hand, was an artist, a serious craftsman who always erred on the side of accuracy, not antics. Even Doyle, in an unguarded moment, admitted that Royce’s greens were “a bit exaggerated” before pausing and changing the subject. For his part, LeVasseur stayed away from the fray, declaring the whole argument “silly.”

But the choice was made. Smurf Blade and all those who agreed with him were forced to back down. Even the ones who claimed they’d sit out the tournament ultimately decided not to. Virtual or not, the green jacket was too great a temptation to give up. It was time to tee off.

Golf: 2018 Masters Golf Tournament Round Three Augusta National Golf Club/Augusta, GA, USA 4/7/2018 X161845 TK3 Credit: Kohjiro Kinno
At its core, the playing tour of The Golf Club shares the most basic philosophy with the real professionals: If you don’t like it, play better. Despite the outcry over the Magnolia snub, the players still lined it up on the new Augusta course and a new major champion was crowned. But there is hope for the diehards: The CLV plans to attempt an updated Magnolia for The Golf Club 2019.

Rob Dallas knew he had to post a number early. A comm-ercial real estate photographer in Orlando, Florida, Dallas had been playing on the TGC World Tour for more than a year and was good enough to hover around the top 20. But he also knew he had a vulnerability familiar to even the best players: He could be rattled by a low number on the scoreboard. “I wanted to play early just so I wasn’t nervous going in,” he says. Tournaments start on Sunday night and end the next Saturday so players can spend Sunday watching real golf. 

So that Sunday night, as soon as the tournament began, Dallas logged on and teed off. There were no other advantages to starting early. In the first iteration of TGC, the designers had made it so that wind conditions were different for every player. But when TGC Tours began its rapid growth—Dallas calls the league “the backbone of the game”—the studio realized it had a problem. “Wind waiters,” they were called. Players could hop on the first tee and hop right off if conditions weren’t tame. “The best part about TGC is that everyone’s the same,” says Dallas. Wind waiters were trying to gain an unfair advantage. Listening to its audience, HB Studios fixed the glitch. When Dallas teed off on No. 1, Tea Olive, he did so knowing his only advantage was the chance to post a good score first. Which he did.

Dallas didn’t plan on playing all four rounds in one night. It’s just that once he started, he couldn’t stop. An opening-round 63—a figure that would equal the record for low round in a real men’s major—was good, but not great. Then he shot 59. Then a 60. The hours were dwindling until Dallas had to go to work; it would be well after 1 a.m. when he teed off for his final round. But he had to ride the momentum. In the fairway on the treacherous 11th, Dallas realized he’d made the right decision. His second shot cleared the water and rolled in for an eagle on one of the course’s hardest holes. “It was a thing of beauty,” says Dallas, who celebrated with a few very quiet fist pumps. Even with a lip-out on 18, Dallas had done exactly what he’d hoped to do: He’d posted an outstanding score, a final-round 57. 

Externally, Dallas played the part of a tournament leader and projected confidence. He even executed the move he was hoping to avoid having pulled on him: He posted his score for everyone to see in the forums, hoping to rattle a few of his competitors. Internally, however, Dallas was nervous. Sitting with his kids watching the Masters the following weekend, he was proud enough to tell them about his great tournament. But they knew better. “Oh no,” they said. 

“Blue Orfie is going to beat you again, isn’t he?”

Blue Orfie is Bradley Garcia. In real life, Garcia is an unemployed 46-year-old living in Birmingham, England, with serious back issues. Online, however, Garcia is a legend, a perennial top money winner on the TGC World Tour and, if Dallas’ kids are to be believed, something of a video-game phantom who can be conjured just by uttering his avatar’s name. Garcia’s real advantage? He’d been playing video game golf longer than just about anyone else, taking his first cuts on a console called the Acorn Electron.

Blue Orfie was known to Dallas’ children because he’d cost them money. Dallas had done well in a cash tournament the previous year, spending his $1,200 on nice gifts for his wife and kids. But he’d just missed out on even bigger first-place money because of another blistering performance by Garcia. Expecting a repeat, Dallas and his kids girded themselves for the scores to be posted. Unbeknownst to them, though, Garcia was part of the majority of TGC fanatics who resented the fact that Doyle and the TGC Tours administrators had chosen a new version of Augusta rather than Magnolia National.

“I really wasn’t happy about the change,” Garcia says. “I just didn’t understand the need to change what is arguably the best course that we play.”

It wasn’t as if Garcia didn’t play well. He was, after all, one of the game’s most accomplished players, a former fireworks technician who had played every version of video game golf that had ever existed, but swore that TGC was “the first golf game that felt like a golf game should.” Still, the move away from Magnolia National tripped him up. Some of the pins were different, he admitted later. Some of the putts didn’t roll out the way he had expected them to. 

Back in Orlando, Dallas and his kids were surprised to discover that his absurd 49-under total had held up. Garcia finished two back in fourth. Dallas won by a single shot. The fist-pump-inducing hole-out on No. 11 turned out to be the difference. “Always nice to get that first major,” says Dallas.

With the controversy from the course change still fresh, HB Studios made an announcement in May that changed everything: The third version of the game, The Golf Club 2019, would be released in the fall of 2018. And in another sign of the game’s growing popularity, it would be officially licensed by the PGA Tour. To fans, it was a reason to rejoice. To LeVasseur, the man spurned by TGC Tours, it was a reason to rebuild. Despite having spent more than 500 hours on the original, LeVasseur thinks a new version of the game should mean a new version of Magnolia National. 

LeVasseur understands it’s a little crazy. He knows his wife “doesn’t realllllly approve” of how he spends his limited free time. But the fans do. The Golf Digest raters of real courses who reach out to him with offers of comped greens fees just because they respect his eye for architecture and minute detail sure do. They all crave another gift from the CLV. “I could have a worse hobby,” he says, knowing full well how many people appreciate the fact that he doesn’t.