Why 'Tommy's Honour' has a shot at being a great golf movie
There's a saying, which I happen to believe, that the smaller the ball, the better the writing. No knock on football and basketball, but golf gave us Herbert Warren Wind and John Updike among other literary giants.
When it comes to Hollywood, however, the bigger the ball, the better the movie. "Hoosiers," "North Dallas Forty" and "Bull Durham" come immediately to mind. There's no ball in "Rocky" or "Raging Bull," but you get the picture.
I'm of the opinion that there's never been a great movie made about golf, not counting the hilarious "Caddyshack," which is in a genre all its own. "Tin Cup," "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and "Bagger Vance" all fell short, either because the actors weren't convincing as golfers or the story fell flat.
But a movie being released Friday raises the bar a couple notches.
"Tommy's Honour," directed by Jason Connery -- Sean's son -- and starring terrific Scottish actors Jack Lowden and Peter Mullan, is based on a book written by Kevin Cook. It's the true story of Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, who combined to win eight of the first 12 British Opens.
The movie has a local tie, too. It's the brainchild of Jim Kreutzer, a Racine endodontist who has dabbled in filmmaking and is credited as a producer on "Tommy's Honour."
The historical drama, shot in 33 days at 50 locations in Scotland, opened the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival and in November won best feature film at the British Academy Scotland Awards -- Scotland's equivalent of the Oscar.
Kreutzer read "Tommy's Honor" (the movie title adds the "u") while on a golf pilgrimage to St. Andrews, Scotland, with a sick friend and was struck by the story of the Morrises and their complicated father-son relationship.
Old Tom was the greenskeeper and club-maker at the fabled Old Course but wasn't allowed to set foot in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and quietly accepted his station in life, while Tommy was a gifted and spirited player who rebelled against both his father and the class system.
"It wasn't just the golf aspect," Kreutzer said. "It happened to be that I liked golf, but it could just as easily be a story about tiddlywinks. It's the father-son, the universal class distinction of Old Tom not being allowed to go in the clubhouse and Young Tom being this young upstart, the Tiger Woods of the 1870s.
"That's why I said, 'How is it possible that no one picked up on this?' This is one of those little gems that slip through the cracks, that Hollywood didn't get."
I like the movie because it's a really good story that happens to be built around golf. The golf scenes are mostly authentic, right down to the pinch of sand used for tees in those days, the shaggy grass on fairways and greens and the long swings of golfers who used hickory-shafted clubs.
The only scene that gave me pause was Young Tom getting backspin on iron shots. That would have been impossible with the equipment of the time.
Neither Mullan nor Lowden had ever played golf but that was almost an advantage. Jim Farmer, the honorary professional at the R&A and a consultant on the film, was able to teach them to swing a club the way golfers did in the 1860s.
Thankfully, though, the golf is almost incidental to the story. Kreutzer and Connery got some advice early on from the late Bill Paxton and took it to heart.
"Bill said, 'Use as few golf shots as possible. When you think you have enough golf shots, cut five more. People don't want to see balls flying through the air. They want to see the story behind the story,' " Kreutzer said. "He was right."
Young Tom was a golfing prodigy who won the first of four consecutive Open titles at 17 in 1868. But he balked at some of the conventions of the time and in one poignant scene tells his father, "Golf is your god, dad, not mine."
Tommy died at 24 on Christmas Day in 1875. The cause of death, some say, was a broken heart. You'll have to see the movie and come to your own conclusion.
Sean Connery saw it and was moved to tears.
"The nicest thing was that he said he felt he was completely in the film," Jason Connery said. "As soon as the film started, he was in that world. That, for me, was exactly what I hoped. He was very moved by it. In a way, it was an ode to fathers and sons, and he's my father."
Early reviews have been positive. Jim Nantz and Ben Crenshaw loved it, Kreutzer said.
"The core of the marketing plan is golf people, to bring the golf family into the theaters," he said. "And if the word can get out that this is a good film, then non-golfers will see it. We've got a really good shot to do well.
"It'll never be the box office winner of the year. We have a limited scope. But I think we'll do OK and surprise a few people."