A must-see golf film? Yep, here’s why Tommy’s Honour checks all the boxes

April 19, 2017

One of the reasons why so many pilgrims venerate St. Andrews is because golf’s past and present commingle so effortlessly there. I have been a half-dozen or so times since my first mecca trip there in 1985. I’m thinking of these trips now because last Friday night, at an art house in Philadelphia, my wife (Christine), our son (Ian!) and I saw the new movie Tommy’s Honour, which is set in 19th century St. Andrews. Tommy is the son of Old Tom Morris, familiar to anybody who has ever bought a postcard in St. Andrews, with his Biblical visage (it’s the beard) and carrying a staff—or is it a hickory-shafted brassie?—he borrowed from Moses.

It’s a handsome movie. In the opening credits you see that it was produced by an outfit called Gutta Percha Productions, and in the closing acknowledgments you see Jordan Spieth’s name alongside that of his father, Shawn. For the two hours in between, you’re transported to the wet-wool, warm-whiskey world where the professional game as we know it was starting to take root. Christine compared the film to the PBS series Downton Abbey because it captures its period so well and addresses the various know-your-place class questions the British do so well. I left the theater feeling like I knew Young Tom. Not just the facts-of-life stuff. The actual man. (A tip of the tam here to Jack Lowden, the actor who portrays him.) The Bamberger threesome is giving Tommy’s Honour a collective six thumbs-ups.

I don’t want to oversell the movie. I wouldn’t call it gripping or even surprising. But it’s beautifully made and beautifully acted. In one scene, you see the shadows of the St. Andrews Cathedral on the cold, clear waters of St. Andrews Bay. It’s a magnificent moment in a film that has genuine majesty.

Neil Oxman, my friend and fellow Philadelphian, who has caddied for Tom Watson since Bruce Edwards’s death in 2004, is a fellow movie buff who in a slow year will see a couple hundred movies (all new releases, in theaters). Each December he goes on a public radio station and discusses the high points and low points of his movie-going year. He knows golf in Scotland like you know your home course. He saw Tommy’s Honour the night after we did. When Neil and I compare movie notes, they are, may I say, to the point. (A random example: “It’s good, despite the boring parts.”) Here is Neil’s review of Tommy’s Honour:

“Make no mistake, Caddyshack it ain’t. But if you want to see an unusual recreation of golf in the 1870s, Tommy’s Honour is worth it. Who knows what the real family dynamic was between Old and Young Tom Morris, but it’s neat to see Jason Connery’s depiction of the Morris clan. And when was the last time you saw Willie and Mungo Park in a movie? Bet it’s been a while for that. This is probably not a movie for a non-golfer. But if you’re a golfer—or a golf fan—go see it.”

Connery directed the film. His father, Sean, is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, and many of the movie’s interior scenes are set in the R&A’s magnificent clubhouse (though shot elsewhere). Many of the golf scenes are set on the Old Course (though shot elsewhere). The many accents in the movie show the broad range of brogues with which English is spoken throughout the British Isles, and U.S. audiences might have benefited from subtitles on one or two of the working-class Scottish accents. (This is half a joke.) Jason Connery grew up around the game, and it shows.

This is not holding Tommy’s Honour to a very high standard, but I can’t think of a movie that conveys golf more realistically. (I am partial to the golf scene in Sideways. In it, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church take a break from their wine crawl for a quickie during which Haden instructs the struggling Giamatti, while he is over his shot, to get in touch with his “inner quiet.” Before long, they both go into full rage after the trailing foursome hits into them.)

Neil’s review reminds me that many will come to the movie knowing little or nothing about the father-son story. That wasn’t the case for me. In St. Andrews in the summer of 1991, I visited an artist and actor named David Joy in his home, a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. At one point he excused himself and returned in a long cape and in the process had turned himself into a character he was then developing, Old Tom Morris himself. For the better part of the next hour, Joy told the story, rooted in oral-tradition lore and the written record of Old Tom, who won four British Open championships, and his son, Tommy, who also won four and most likely would have won more had he not died under tragic and complicated circumstances at age 24. The events leading to his death are the movie’s driving force. No, Mungo and Willie Park are not implicated in it, not even remotely. The story Joy has told audiences for decades and the story that Kevin Cook told in his 2007 book, Tommy’s Honour, are remarkably consistent.

When the Open was last played at St. Andrews, in 2015, I visited the cathedral cemetery, along with many other pilgrims, and paid a visit to the tombstones that remember the father’s long life and the son’s short one. I also visited with Sheila Walker, Old Tom’s great, great granddaughter, in her garden behind the Old Tom Morris golf shop. A retired librarian, she was worried that the movie version of Tommy’s Honour, then in its planning stages, would turn legend into fact. I asked her if she believed that Tommy had died of a broken heart, as Cook and Joy and others have depicted. “Absolutely, I do,” she said. It is a tribute to the movie that it would be impossible not to believe that.

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The script for the movie was written by Cook and his wife, Pamela Marin. Kevin is a former Sports Illustrated colleague of mine and a rare multi-threat talent. That is, he’s a writer who can edit and an editor who can write. He is an impish Hoosier now living in Northampton, Mass., with a subversive sense of humor. (He once suggested that a financially beleaguered Tour event consider an Adam Scott kissing booth.) Tommy’s Honour, both in book form and on the silver screen, is nothing if not sober. During an hour-long phone interview, I asked Kevin what it was like to write a script that was long on earnestness when he is a writer with an antenna tuned for the absurd. He reminded me of the scene, the playing of a caddie championship, in which the caddies gamely play for the far-better second-place prize, a bottle of whiskey. It’s a funny moment.

He told me about the long road to from book to filmed entertainment: “They tell you, ‘You’re not going to get a sports movie made. You’re not going to get a golf movie made. You’re not going to get a period-piece made.’ But it got made—it can be done. If you’re working with good people.” If you see the movie, it will become obvious to you that he was.

Cook is now working on a book about the 1947 World Series, New York Yankees versus the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Spoiler alert: The Bombers won in seven. Jackie Robinson, the first black to play in a World Series, went to bat 27 times. Nobody went to the plate more.) What a good idea for a book.

Cook got interested in Tom Morris when he made his first trip to St. Andrews in 1986. “I was going to be 30,” he said. “Half a life ago.” About a decade and a half later, or a quarter life ago, he started his research into the book that won the USGA’s Herbert Warren Wind Book Award for 2007. He notes, generously, that two other books in which Tom Morris is a central figure subsequently won the Wind award.

The movie was shot over the course of 33 days, but Cook was there for only three of them. Still, it was a good three days. “When you’re writing dialogue, you’re hearing it in your head,” he said. “The actors have improved it.”

I asked if a person were going to have only one Tommy’s Honour experience, which should it be, the movie or the book?

“They should see the movie,” Cook replied.

Why, I asked.

“It’s out now.”

You can reach Michael Bamberger at mbamberger0224@aol.com.