- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Don’t believe the snipe.

Although critics have almost universally panned the recently released “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius,” ardent golfers and casual moviegoers are likely to thoroughly enjoy director Rowdy Herrington’s portrayal of the game’s ultimate amateur icon.

The film methodically tracks the life of the Atlanta native from his sickly childhood through his unequaled Grand Slam of 1930, stressing the strength-sapping trio of expected glory, self-consuming competitive intensity and a rare physical ailment (later diagnosed as a spinal disorder called syringomyelia) that forced Jones into retiring from competitive golf at the apex of his career at 28.

“Jones carried great burdens,” said Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), the actor who capably shouldered the legend’s role. “He had family problems, enormous pressure to win the Grand Slam and a disease that was taking over his body — he was on the verge of snapping.”

The film’s only real attempt at plumbing the depths of Jones’ personality comes with Caviezel’s depiction of the golfer’s mostly closed-door showdowns with these demons. Though Herrington’s script was approved by the Jones Family Heirs Trust, the film pulls few punches in this regard. Multiple scenes deal with his extreme emotional anxiety, chronicling his stomach pain, vomiting and shocking weight loss (often up to 15 pounds) during tournaments. And the film doesn’t shy away from historically accurate glimpses at how Jones took the edge off that anxiety with alcohol and cigarettes.

But this is primarily not a soul-searching film, and it’s not meant to be. Generally, it has the cozy, feel-good aura of a big budget biopic — think “Pride of the Yankees” meets “Seabiscuit.”

Most critics level the charge that Caviezel’s Jones comes off too flat for a man who spoke six languages, held an engineering degree from Georgia Tech, a Classics degree from Harvard and put himself through law school — all while conquering the best pros of his day in his spare time.

But anyone who has read Jones’ exceedingly wordy, if erudite, letters understands the man’s game was far more colorful than his personality. Much of the film’s charisma is provided by Jeremy Northam, who turns in an excellent performance as Walter Hagen, Jones’ professional foil and primary rival as well as the game’s egotistical, high-living showman of his day.

At one point in the film, a chauffeured Hagen arrives for a match with Jones still sleeping after a night of revelry and is asked his handicap, to which he replies, “Same as last year — drink and debauchery.”

Such a jest is perfectly in line with the historical Hagen, who was notorious for showing up for today’s play in last night’s party attire and who once famously stated, “I never wanted to be a millionaire — I just wanted to live like one.”

When Northam isn’t supplying giggles, Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”) is handy with a bit of colorful wisdom as O.B. Keeler, Jones’ flask-toting personal scribe. And when neither of those characters is in the frame, the film is carried by the aesthetics of its period sets, the lovely Claire Forlani (who is a sight easier on the eyes than the real Mrs. Jones) and the course backdrops. Much of the movie was shot on the Old Course at St. Andrews — the first time a film has been afforded this sublime luxury by the Royal & Ancient.

As for the technical aspects of the film, Caviezel’s imitation of Jones’ elegantly long swing qualifies as superb compared with the painfully transparent efforts of recent cinematic hacks Matt Damon (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”) and Kevin Costner (“Tin Cup”). Perhaps it helped that Caviezel, a natural lefty and accomplished JUCO hoops player, had never played golf before filming and therefore didn’t have to manipulate an existing swing. He literally spent months watching Jones’ instructional films of the 1930s and refining his move under the discriminating eyes of film consultants and teaching pros Jim Hardy and Tom Ness.

As a historical primer, the film is extremely accurate and informative despite one notable omission and one notable fabrication.

During his run to the Grand Slam in 1930, by far Jones’ closest brush with defeat came in his sixth-round match against Britain’s Cyril Tolley in the British Amateur at St. Andrews. With the match square on the 18th green, Jones survived an errant birdie bid by Tolley from 12 feet before claiming a 1-up victory thanks to a now-defunct stymie play at the 19th hole. With Tolley facing a 10-footer for par on the first extra hole, Jones intentionally lagged his birdie putt a foot short and into Tolley’s line. Because balls on the green were not then marked, Tolley had to attempt to loft his putt over Jones’ ball and into the cup. After Tolley’s bid failed, Jones remarked, “It was a cruel way to win.”

Depicting such a pivotal match in Jones’ run to the Slam would seem both logical and the perfect vehicle for a period vignette about the stymie play. Instead, Herrington chose to show Jones’ crippling 7 and 6 defeat of Roger Wethered in the finals.

The film’s one complete fabrication was Jones’ holing of a near-impossible bunker shot to nip Hagen later that summer at the British Open at Hoylake. Not only did Jones not win the claret jug in such dramatic fashion, Hagen was nowhere near the leader board, finishing out of the top 30.

Despite that pair of shanks and the acknowledged Disneyfied lack of depth, however, the film’s positives bury its negatives beneath a hail of cinematic birdies. For one, this is the first major golf movie since 1951’s “Follow the Sun,” Glenn Ford’s portrayal of Ben Hogan’s comeback from a 1949 auto accident, that actually deals with serious subject matter.

After surviving the hyper-spiritual drivel of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (not to mention Damon’s swing) and the comic inanity of mindless offerings like “Tin Cup” and “Happy Gilmore,” golf deserved a film that at least aspires to a level of intelligence commensurate with the dignity of the game and its past. “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” might continue to be a bogey at the box office. But perhaps that’s more of an indictment of our culture than Herrington’s epic undertaking.

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