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You need only understand one thing: Golf is an insidious game.

Just when you've finally surpassed your threshold for dribbled drives and shanked 7-irons - in fact, you're looking forward to the first snowfall to give you a legitimate excuse (as if last week's three quadruple bogeys weren't enough) to stow away the clubs for the winter - and what happens?Computer golf season starts.

So instead of spending a healthy afternoon chasing white balls hither around sun-drenched links, you'll be spending time holed up with a 15-inch monitor playing a host of golf courses that requires an equity line to cover the green fees.

Isn't life great?

Best of all, you don't need to play your own pathetic golf game. "Duffy the Duffer" is on hiatus during computer golf season. Just one double-click of the mouse and you're suddenly transformed into Greg Norman in one simulation, or the legendary Arnold Palmer in another.

Find that all a bit pretentious? Play a friendly round - as a low handicapper or club pro - with Arnie or Greg. Pick up a few playing tips. Heck, Arnie's even programmed to offer a series of post-shot comments. In next year's version, don't be surprised if he pulls up in that old Pennzoil tractor of his.

Say you'd rather ditch the pros and venture off solo. No problem. Today's golf simulations offer options a plenty. You can choose the type of ball you're going to play - wound balata or wound surlyn. Have a yearning for tinkering with the weather? Make it sunny, cloudy, rainy or windy or a combination thereof.

Prefer stroke play? Best ball? Skins? Match play? Need to hit a fade or draw on demand? Or how about some extra spin on a shot to a tricky green?

You can have shadows; watch the sand and divots fly. It's even reached the point of realism overkill that you can see the stripes in the grass from the morning's mowing or watch your golf tee break.

And don't forget that you can always take that Mulligan or "gim-mie" putt when circumstances dictate.

You get the picture. Speaking of which, golf simulations still lead the pack when it comes to computer gaming realism. The detailing is awesome. A word of warn-ing, however: To take full advantage of such photo-realism, you need a top-notch video card and monitor.

So pull up a chair and whack away. As songwriter Sammy Cahn would say: "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

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Long live the king - and I don't mean Elvis.

Computer golf simulations come and go, but one constant in recent years has been Salt Lake City's Access Software's ability to stay a step ahead of the competition.

Access's latest entry, "Links LS 1997 (Legends in Sports)," a three CD-set bundled with "Arnold Palmer at Latrobe Country Club," raises the computer golfing standard again.

While the computer golf format hasn't changed much through the years, improvements in the format - many pioneered by the folks at Access - have been nothing short of incredible.

For "Links LS 1997," Access boosted realism by increasing available resolutions. Assuming your video card and monitor are up to the task, you can now display up to 16.7 million colors at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 65,000 colors at resolutions of 1600x1200. With a Diamond Stealth 3200 video card and .26 dot pitch monitor, the look of the Hawaiian Kapalua course was stunning.

Access kept the usual bells and whistles that computer golfers have grown to expect. One minor improvement is the simplification of the game's control panel and adding of an automatic prompt whenever the cursor is placed on top of an icon. Timing of the golfer's swing and swing indicator are also independent of one another.

The "Arnold Palmer at Latrobe Country Club" bundled with "Links LS 1997" adds another dimension and satisfies players wanting to play 18 holes as, or with, one of the game's legends.

Minimum system requirements: - 486 or higher PC, Windows 95 or DOS 6.0, 16 MB RAM (Windows 95), 12 MB RAM (DOS 6.0), 1 MB video, 2X CD-ROM. Contact: Access Software, 4750 W. Wiley Post Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84116; (801) 359-2900; (http://www.accesssoftware.com); street price: $54.99.

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For once, somebody is going to cut Greg Norman some slack. There'll be no mention of his legendary meltdown at the Masters this year. Oops!

Rather, kudos to the "Shark" for his collaboration on one of the best golfing games to come down the fairway in some time.

Let's be honest, it's cathartic for a hacker like myself to play as Greg Norman (in the game's arcade mode) and watch him drub a ball off the tee, or duck hook another into the lake at his home Medalist Golf Course.

Alas, playing bad golf, even masquerading as Greg Norman does have its limits. Fortunately, "Greg Norman/Ultimate Challenge Golf" also offers a simulation mode (the computer calculates the shot based on course conditions and player characteristics) that lets you play as the real Greg or anyone else.

Simply assemble your golfer from a smorgasbord of player strengths and styles. You can even program the game to play as yourself, although most of my golfing buddies would be wise to resist that temptation.

One feature I especially enjoyed was a separate golf instruction section. Here, the user is walked through the mental and physical processes necessary to execute a variety of golf shots.

If I do have a complaint about "Ultimate Challenge Golf" (and it's a complaint with most golfing simulations), it's that there are too many options.

Frankly, I don't care what type of ball I play with. In real life, I play with whatever I fish out of the water hazards with my ball retriever. It can also be a pain to not only select a club for a particular shot, but also be compelled to choose the shot's spin or height. Again, if I'm facing a 150-yard shot on the course, I choose my 150-yard club, whatever it happens to be that day, and swing away.

Those differences aside, I wouldn't be at all disappointed to find a "Shark" under my Christmas tree this year.

Minimum system requirements: 486DX/33 PC, DOS 5.0/Windows 3.1, 8 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM. Contact: Grolier Interactive, Danbury, CT 06816; (203-797-3530; (http://www.grolier.com); street price: $49.99.