Mark Gorton has been watching films inspired by the game of golf and devised a unique ratings system to inform your viewing choices.
Eagle: Must watch
Birdie: Jolly good
Bogie: If you have nothing better to do
Rough: Avoid at all costs
THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED (2005)
Francis Ouimet’s 1913 US Open victory was the stuff of sporting fairy-tale – so perhaps it is no surprise that it was the Disney studio that decided to turn his story into a movie. America always has a special place in its heart for the sporting underdog, dislikes snobbery, and loves rooting for the little guy taking on the big guy. Cinderella Man makes a hero of a not-so-heavy heavyweight fighter; Seabiscuit celebrates the little horse with the big jockey who win against all odds; and The Greatest Game Ever Played describes how the kid born into modest circumstances discovers that, through sport, he can make the most of himself and, unwittingly, change the nature of the game he adores for the better both at home and across the world. There is a good deal of sentimentality – Francis’ father orders him to give up the game for a “real job” while his mother remains quietly supportive of her son’s dream. He needs $50 to enter the Open, so vows to quit golf if his dad lends him the money and he fails to qualify. Somehow Francis ends up with a 10 year old caddy called Eddie who is wise beyond his years. But guess what? All of this is broadly true. Harry Vardon is Francis’ potential Nemesis, but there is poignancy in his portrayal. Harry’s professionalism means that he is destined never to be fully accepted by golf’s ruling class, despite his ability, good character and natural sense of code. Harry, like Francis, is not “one of us”. And so, despite the odd liberty with fact taken in the interests of drama, the film ends in a manner true to the best principles of golf – reminding us that victory is sweet when won with honour, skill and fair play, but that defeat can also be a sort of victory. For when Francis Ouimet sinks the winning putt we come to understand that the game will change: that people from all walks of life will claim ownership of golf, and that professionals like Harry Vardon, giants held in chains by snobbery, will cease to be second class citizens and enjoy the respect of all. This is why the book by Mark Frost, The Greatest Game Ever Played, on which he based the film’s screenplay, is sub-titled, Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet and the Birth of Modern Golf.
BOBBY JONES: STROKE OF GENIUS (2004)
From a movie-making point of view, Bobby Jones had, on the one hand, matinee idol good looks and an irrepressible will to win. On the other, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing, was never the underdog, and had few demons to wrestle with apart from perfectionism, a temper and a taste for the booze. To make matters worse, he was ferociously clever, finding time to become expert in engineering, literature and the law. Films tend to abhor very smart people, unless they are madcap and eccentric. So Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (which probably lead some people to believe that his career was ended by a burst blood vessel), sets out to make Jones more interesting. His underdog status is conferred by stress laid on his sickly childhood, a time when he was encouraged to play golf because he could not take part in rougher sports like baseball. His bad temper – he was no stranger to walking off a course mid-competition – threatens to undermine his dreams of glory. His devotion to the game takes him away from his wife and causes marital tension. And his fondness for a drink begins to look like alcoholism. Truth is, a man who played the loneliest game so beautifully and found he had no golfing peaks left to conquer aged just 28 must have been bound up in a complexity with which the film cannot deal. And from an historical point of view, when we discover that the screenwriters have relocated the 1930 Open Championship played at Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, to St Andrews in Scotland, there is little else to do other than doubt the general veracity of the story. The producers had been given the backing of Jones’ descendants and permission to film at both the Home of Golf and Augusta. Doubtless they thought, “Hoylake? Where the hell is that?” If they had waited a couple of years until 2006 and the return of The Open to that fine course they would have known the answer.
HAPPY GILMORE (1996)
The sporting underdog makes another appearance here, only now he is barking mad, and affection for this film depends on your response to star, Adam Sandler. Happy is a would-be ice hockey pro who possesses a powerful shot but is to skating what Pavarotti was to hang-gliding. He also has anger management issues and a poor grasp of etiquette. When Happy learns two things – that his grandmother’s house has to be sold to pay a massive tax bill, and that he can hit a golf ball 400 yards, the Fates conspire to turn him into an unlikely pro determined to win serious money. Happy’s big-hitting talents are noticed by club pro, Chubbs Peterson, whose professional career was ended by an alligator that bit off his right hand. A victory in a local tournament elevates Happy to the ranks of the Pro Golf Tour (a thinly disguised PGA Tour), where he quickly makes an enemy of egomaniac star, Shooter McGavin. Shooter stops at nothing to undermine Happy, including the hiring of a demented fan, Donald, who is instructed to heckle Happy at every opportunity. This doesn’t help Happy’s putting – which is appalling. As the film’s climactic tournament approaches, Chubbs takes his protégé to a crazy golf course for putting practise and gives him a putter fashioned in the shape of a hockey stick. In return, Happy, having killed in a previous competition the alligator that bit off Chubbs’ hand, presents his coach with its head. Shocked, Chubbs staggers backwards, is defenestrated and falls to his death. To cut a long story short, the lunatic Donald crashes his VW Beetle into a TV tower on the 18th green with Happy and Shooter neck and neck. Shooter makes his par. Then the tower collapses, blocking Happy’s route to the hole for birdie. Now his crazy golf training comes in handy as an extraordinary trick shot navigates the wreckage and sends the ball into the hole. Victory! And all is right with this world and the one in the hereafter. The film ends with Happy receiving congratulations from a ghostly two handed Chubbs, Abraham Lincoln – and the alligator. Yes, Abraham Lincoln. And an alligator.
TIN CUP (1996)
The unlikely connection of the words ‘golf’ and ‘romantic comedy’ is made in a pleasing manner by this vehicle for Kevin Costner. Meet Roy McAvoy, another golfing underdog, but one cowed by life and clinging on to a puppyish charm. A washed up professional of great talent but precious little ambition, he owns a grim driving range in West Texas. When the girlfriend of top pro, David Simms, turns up asking for a golf lesson, “Tin Cup” McAvoy is instantly attracted to her; and then badly bruised when Simms also shows up and appears to invite him to play in a local tournament – only for Roy to realise that Simms merely wants him to act as caddy. Roy’s combative spirit begins to stir. What’s more, as luck and the script would have it, Dr. Molly Griswold is also a clinical psychologist. And Roy is in dire need of some help with the inner game. So, taking shape is a triangle as potentially hazardous as Amen Corner – can Roy McAvoy defeat Simms and win a major? Can he win his arch-rival’s girl? And, in the process, can he win back his self-esteem? The answers are no, yes and yes, because it is in Roy’s character to “go for it”. The climax of the film is peculiar inasmuch as it is unusual for Hollywood to celebrate losing. On the 18th, as Simms plays the percentages and lays up short of water guarding the green, Roy takes out a fairway wood and attempts to carry the ball some 230 yards. He doesn’t make it. He tries again. And again. At last, after much heartbreak, his 12th shot makes it on to the green and rolls agonisingly into the hole. But all is not lost. On the contrary, the girl has been won and Roy has finished high enough up the leader board to qualify for next year. And, most important of all, he is a better man. Tin Cup is a decent, lightweight film but golfers and non-golfers alike can learn this from it. Kevin Costner had barely played the game before the movie was made and spent just months achieving such a level of proficiency that many of the great shots he is seen to play were not cheated by editing or executed by doubles. Maybe it’s not as difficult a game as we choose to think.
THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE (2000)
Sport and the supernatural are surprisingly common playing partners. Kevin Costner is visited by phantoms of baseball’s past in the excellent Field of Dreams. Robert Redford wields a magical baseball bat in The Natural. And in The Legend of Bagger Vance the mysterious figure of the film’s title comes to the aid of a promising golfer traumatised by his experiences on the battlefields of World War I. Played by Matt Damon, Rannulph Junuh came home, turned to drink, and rejected the woman and the sport he once loved. Years later, amid the Great Depression, the woman in question, beautiful Adele Invergordon, attempts to recover some of her family’s lost fortune by staging an exhibition match between the recently retired Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. She needs to generate local interest – and that means the participation of a local hero. Therefore she invites her estranged love, Rannulph, to take part. Against his better judgement he agrees and takes to hitting balls in the dead of night. Cue the arrival of Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who volunteers to caddy for him – and so begins a homespun process whereby Rannulph begins to grip his personal demons by their throats. When the competition begins, Jones and Hagen play their distinctive games leaving Rannulph lagging behind after the first round. But behold, it comes to pass that, with Bagger on his bag, Rannulph rediscovers his “authentic swing” and begins to make up ground – and make up, too, with the attractive Adele. Finally, the film invokes one of the soundest principles of golf. During the final round, having strayed into trees, Rannulph moves his ball when trying to shift an obstacle, and calls the penalty on himself. Bagger appears to conclude that this is proof his work is done, and departs as oddly as he arrived. On the last hole, Rannulph sinks a remarkable putt and the match concludes with a neat and sporting three-way tie – together with a romantic couple destined for a long and happy life together.
Any film that offers viewers a green keeping assistant played by Bill Murray trying to blow up a gopher with plastic explosives wins my approval. Murray is one of cinema’s most gifted comedy performers – and a fine character actor to boot – not to mention a most engaging celebrity golf enthusiast. Caddyshack was a relatively early outing for both him and its director, the late Harold Ramis, and the movie was an astonishing success, paving way for further collaboration between the two on Ghostbusters. Peopled by funny men like Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase, Caddyshack fires verbal and visual jokes in relentless, rapid-fire salvos. Some stray into the rough, there is the odd shank, but most hit the target, and Murray as the unqualified and unhinged Carl Spackler steals the show. In a plot too insane and convoluted to describe in brief, the obsessive zeal with which Carl approaches a potentially disastrous gopher infestation of Bushwood Country Club is a delight. And the final twist – that the vibrations from his apocalyptic and course-wide detonation designed to eliminate all gophers should cause the hero’s ball to roll into the hole and thus secure a much needed $80,000 first prize, is a wholesome reminder why the rub of the green is enshrined in the playing of the game of golf.
WHO’S YOUR CADDY? (2007)
The legendary screenwriter, William Goldman, famously stated: “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” And it seems that hardly anyone knows how this miasma of nonsensical “comedy” came to be made. Hip-hop star C-Note wishes to join an exclusive country club with hilarious consequences. Unfortunately they are anything but, and Who’s Your Caddy? flies swiftly and unerringly well out of bounds into that netherworld that is home to “the worst movies of all time”.
The Greatest Game Ever Played, Walt Disney Pictures, dir: Bill Paxton. Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, Bobby Jones Films, dir: Rowdy Herrington. Happy Gilmore, Universal Pictures, dir: Dennis Dugan. Tin Cup, Warner Brothers, dir: Ron Shelton. The Legend of Bagger Vance, Twentieth Century Fox, dir: Robert Redford. Caddyshack, Orion Pictures, dir: Harold Ramis. Who’s Your Caddy? Ascendant Pictures, dir: Don Michael Paul.