From its opening shot -- a sweeping vista of a hallowed golf course, scored by James Horner with tremulous tin whistles -- through the concluding round-robin of congratulatory hugs, there are few surprises in Rowdy Herrington's bio-pic about Bobby Jones, America's first golf star, who plunked a lot of small white balls into slightly larger dirt holes throughout the 1920s.
Jones, the film assures us repeatedly, was a remarkable player who overcame his temper, nerves, physical ailments and a dislike of public exposure to become golf's great "gentleman" player. He played only in the summer; off the course, he bagged a degree in mechanical engineering, another in classics, and a law degree. He retired at 28, at the very pinnacle of the sport.
It's a grand enough story, but Herrington seems incapable of constructing any tension, on or off the green. He presents snippets of many matches: Jones swings and gazes skyward, ball drops in hole or sand trap, spectators clap or gasp. Jones' greatest golf achievement -- his Grand Slam victory, winning all four big tournaments in one year -- practically occurs off-screen. This is a Lifetime movie for men, a sports melodrama of surprisingly modest proportions that values resolution and home-building over the pitched emotions of winning. Besides conceding to the wishes of his own family, Jones also founds the Augusta National Golf Club, the lush green heart of American golf (though for men only).
Jim Caviezel moves on from playing a bloodied Jesus, here turning in a fair performance as the clean and tidy Jones. But other than an impressive array of plus-fours and Argyle sweaters, the film doesn't give him much to work with. Malcolm McDowell punches the clock as O.B. Keeler, sportswriter, confidant and Greek chorus, but British actor Jeremy Northam brings some verve to his role as Walter Hagen, a brash bon vivant and Jones' on-course rival.
Curiously, the film muffs an interesting subplot: the ascent of professional sports. Jones, despite his skill, ambition and marketability, never turns pro, at the very moment in history when organized sports becomes a business. In some respects, this shift opens up previously class-restricted leisure activities to ordinary or even impoverished athletes who can trade talent for financing. When Jones says he plays and wins because he enjoys it, Hagen counters pointedly that he plays for money and wins because he has to. This friendship, fraught with tension (each man resents the other's approach to the game vis-Ã -vis money and fame), would not only have been a more unusual story, but also would have provided the context to explore the larger issue of how money has or hasn't corrupted sports.