An oral history of Tin Cup: One of golf’s most iconic movies ever made

August 9, 2016
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Few movies get golf right. Fewer still add to the game’s lexicon. (We all know what it means to “pull a Tin Cup” or to “let the big dog eat.”) Twenty years after the film’s release, the stars of Tin Cup — Costner! Russo! Cheech! — take us back to ’96 and the making of the most authentic golf movie ever. And yeah, that 18th hole meltdown? It still hurts. “Another ball, Romeo…”

During the final round of the 1993 Masters, Chip Beck etched his name in the annals of golf infamy with his second shot on the par-5 15th hole. Beck trailed Bernhard Langer by three strokes with three holes to play, but rather than go for the green in two, he laid up, inciting the outrage of forehead-slapping second-guessers watching at home. Ron Shelton, the director of such brilliantly offbeat sports movies as Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, was one of those armchair critics. When Beck made his fateful decision, Shelton immediately called his golfing buddy, screenwriter John Norville. The two men had kicked around ideas for a golf movie over the course of several years and even more adult beverages, but they could never find a way into the story. Beck gave them what they were looking for. What if the hero of the movie was the anti-Beck, a guy constitutionally incapable of laying up, a guy who went for it all the time, even when—especially when—he shouldn’t? That was the moment Tin Cup was born.

Released on August 16, 1996, Shelton and Norville’s long-gestating labor of love may be the most thrilling (and accurate) movie ever made about golf. The romantic comedy stars Kevin Costner as Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a washed-up pro drinking his days away at a Texas driving range; Don Johnson as David Simms, his smarmy, play-it-safe college rival who’s become a Tour star; Rene Russo as Dr. Molly Griswold, the daffy shrink who comes between them; and Cheech Marin as Romeo, Roy’s loyal sidekick and caddie. There are cameos by dozens of Tour pros, too, among them Fred Couples and Johnny Miller. But the film is most famous for its excruciating climax, when Roy self-destructs on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open. To commemorate Tin Cup’s 20th anniversary, GOLF tracked down the cast and crew for a no-holes-barred look back at an evergreen fairway classic.

“He won’t lay up!”

Ron Shelton (director, co-writer): Our original idea involved a golf hustler at a driving range in West Texas, a guy with a bit of Lee Trevino’s background. But we didn’t nail it down until the ’93 Masters. I was watching at home in Ojai, and John was at home in Oregon. When Chip Beck laid up, we immediately called each other and said, That’s the key to our guy: He won’t lay up!

John Norville (co-writer): Ron’s thinking all along was that we shouldn’t write a golf story for golfers. We needed to write a golf story for women who don’t play golf—or even get golf. The question became, Who’s our character? Well, Ron’s family is from West Texas, and there’s this great tradition of Texas players who have a whiskey bottle and a revolver in their bag. It’s the kind of place where a guy can get lost.

MORE: 7 Awesome, Hilarious Facts Every Tin Cup Fan Should Know

Shelton: We had to overcome the perception of golf as a rich man’s sport, because I don’t think it is a rich man’s sport, it’s a blue-collar sport. One of the glorious parts of the game is that golfers will wait in line at five a.m. at a public course to shoot 103. The Chip Beck thing was just the light bulb that went off for us. Our hero’s strength and his fatal flaw is that he’s more afraid of winning than losing. He’d rather be the big fish in the littlest of ponds than risk winning on the big stage.

Gary Foster (producer): Norville invited me up to Ojai one day to play golf with Ron. We called him “Ballwash Ron” because if he hit a drive off the fairway and over by the ball washer, he’d still find a way to make par. This must have been 1994. Afterward, over drinks, we decided Ron would direct, John would write, and I would produce. Then they went to Warner Bros., because that’s where Ron had a deal. It just so happened that Kevin Costner had a deal there, too.

“It was my chance to run with the big dogs.”

Shelton: When we started writing it, we didn’t have an actor in mind for Roy, but about 20 pages into it John and I looked at each other and said, “It’s Costner.” So I called Kevin, who I’d worked with on Bull Durham, and he said, “I’m taking some time off.” I said, “Just read it before you say no.” So he did. A few days later, we met for breakfast, and he said, “Damn it. You’re right. I gotta do this.”

Kevin Costner (Roy McAvoy): “Champagne Johnny” Norville and I had gone fishing together, and I knew he was working on something about golf with Ron. But I didn’t think about it too much because I didn’t really play golf—maybe once a year with my father-in-law. On the first tee, I tended to hit three or four balls, all to the right, and I wasn’t too f—ing impressive. Plus, I wasn’t working at the time. I’d just done Waterworld and had gone through a divorce, and my heart was pretty much on the ground. But I knew working with Ron again would be the best therapy, because he basically hands you something you can’t fail with.

Shelton: Once we had Kevin, we had to start thinking about the other roles, like Molly. In all sports movies, the woman’s role is critical. You want to get the golfer and the person who thinks it’s the stupidest sport ever. You want both audiences. There were actresses on our list who refused to audition, but Rene Russo was like, “Sure!” And she was perfect. Not just attractive and smart—she’s very appealing when she gets flustered, and I thought I could make something out of that. You could easily believe that she got involved with the wrong guy, and can’t figure out how to get uninvolved with him in order to get with the right guy, who happens to be kind of a mess.

Rene Russo (Dr. Molly Griswold): I didn’t know anything about golf. And I remember being really intimidated because it was such a good role. And I went in, and there was Mr. Charm, Kevin Costner. I was so nervous, because it was the first film that I majorly wanted. We read together, and Kevin’s so good I just fell into it.

Costner: Ron casts broads, and I say “broads” as a term of endearment—a girl who can hang with guys and make everybody feel like they have a chance, even when they don’t.

Shelton: For the part of Roy’s caddie, Romeo, I must have auditioned every Latino actor there was—even stars from Mexico City. Cheech Marin was the first to walk in the door, and after dozens of other actors I just couldn’t get him out of my mind. The character he plays is sort of the moral center of this wacky universe. He’s the truth teller, he’s got the heart. And the thought of Cheech being the moral center of a universe appealed to me.

Cheech Marin (Romeo): It wasn’t like, Oh, we gotta get Cheech for this! I auditioned and months went by. I’d given up hope. This was a big, fat, A-list movie, and it was my chance to run with the big dogs. I mean, I’m half joking. Cheech and Chong was bigger than a lot of movie stars, but I wanted to compete in that race.

Shelton: For the part of David Simms, we needed someone with swagger and who could swing a golf club. Alec Baldwin was going to do it, but his wife at the time, Kim Basinger, was expecting. So he called me up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” Then someone suggested Don Johnson. He could really play, which was crucial because we were about to start shooting.

Marin: We were waiting on the set, and every day there was scuttlebutt about who they were going to get for the Simms part. Then all of a sudden it’s Don Johnson, and it was like, Oh, this is going to be f—ing perfect! Don and I were friends going back to when we were both young actors in Hollywood, way before Miami Vice.

Don Johnson (David Simms): I think it really came down to who could go toe to toe with Kevin and be believable, and who could play golf. I’m not sure that I qualify in either one of those categories, but I’m an actor, and I can pretend really well. At that time, my game was a lot better than it is now. I was an 8 or 9 handicap. I played some ProAms with guys like Payne Stewart.

Shelton: Casting was relatively easy. The hardest part was finding golf courses to shoot on. Nobody wants to have Hollywood come in and close down their course for a month. I wouldn’t. We sent people all over the country looking courses.

Foster: We went to Myrtle Beach, to Florida, you name it.

David Lester (producer): When you do sports movies, it’s really a bummer to take fields of play away from people, so we hunted for new courses that people hadn’t played yet. That’s how we got Kingwood and Deerwood, in Houston, as our U.S. Open site. We had the USGA come in to lay out the course in real U.S. Open conditions. And we fell in love with Tubac Golf Resort and La Paloma, in Arizona, for Roy’s local driving range and for the qualifying-round scenes. We could’ve muscled our way into a lot of places, but you don’t want to s— on golf fans just to make a movie.

“By the first week I couldn’t break 100.”

Shelton: A lot of actors think they’re athletes and aren’t, but Kevin’s a real athlete. I knew that from Bull Durham. And we brought in Gary McCord and Peter Kostis to work with him and Don. Every time we shot a golf scene we would fly them in. Kevin never took a swing they didn’t sign off on, and they were both surprised by how well he could mimic them. He had a short follow-through that they kept trying to make longer, and I said, “Let’s just write it into the script. Because Roy’s from West Texas and he’s used to playing in the wind, he has a short follow-through.” I knew the golf press would go after us, so I made it part of the story.

Gary McCord (technical advisor): I got the script from my agent. He said they wanted me to be the technical advisor on the movie. Kevin hadn’t really played much golf, so I told him we were there to make him look as real as possible. He got pretty damn good.

MORE: 7 Awesome, Hilarious Facts Every Tin Cup Fan Should Know

Peter Kostis (technical advisor): We actually met for the first time during the week of the Bridgestone, the year before the movie was made. And I took Kevin out to the driving range at Sharon Golf Club to start the process of constructing a swing. He was a baseball player growing up, so he’s a natural athlete. About 30 minutes into the lesson, he hit an 8-iron about three feet from a flag on a green that was maybe 150 yards away, and after he hit it, he turned to Ron Shelton and said, “Ronnie, I’m hitting all the shots in the movie. There’ll be no stunt double.” And, basically, he did. That same week, we were in the bar at the Hilton in Akron, Ohio, and Kevin was regaling us with all these stories about Hollywood women. Everybody was really quite intrigued, including Jerry Pate, who was with CBS at the time and who we affectionately called “Mr. Inappropriate Man.” He tried to one-up Kevin Costner with stories about women in Alabama. Yeah. He was a moron. [Laughs]

Johnson: Gary and Peter started to take my swing apart, and by the first week I couldn’t break 100. I was so freaked out and frustrated, but I kept at it. The good thing about the movie is, we’d shoot a scene and then go play three or four holes. Kevin and I were single at the time, and we spent most of our time out cattin’ around and playing golf, and every once in a while a movie would break out. About three weeks into the movie, my score started coming down in chunks. Big chunks. By the end of the film, I was a 3. And they paid me.

McCord: I had my caddie work with Cheech, so he’d look like he knew the jargon.

Marin: This guy Sven was my caddie guru. That wasn’t really his name; it’s just what I called him. We spent a lot of time hitting balls and going out on the course, but it was more about knowing the relationship between a golfer and caddie.

Norville: I always thought Romeo and Roy should be like Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. They need each other. Caddies are the only relationship a lot of golfers have. Golfers need their caddies the way a racehorse needs a jockey—to point them in the right direction.

Shelton: We needed to get some professional golfers in the movie to give it a flavor of authenticity. So we started calling, and their agents wanted $50,000 for an appearance, like it was a corporate outing. We were like, “No, we’re offering them $600.” And they all said no way. Then McCord had a great idea.

McCord: I called the players’ wives and said, “How’d you like to have dinner with Kevin Costner and Don Johnson? The catch is, your husband is going to have to be on a movie set for a day.” We rented a big room in Tucson and let Kevin and Don loose on the girls. I told them, “Be Hollywood, and bulls— with these women; make them tell their husbands they have to do this movie.” In the end, we got 35 players, four U.S. Open winners—and they got SAG minimum!

Corey Pavin: I was the reigning U.S. Open champion when we shot the film, and I still get a residual check every six or eight months, for $1.80 or something.

“There’s a scene where Roy knocks a pelican off a post.”

Marin: The first scene we shot was when Don drives up to our trailer in the desert. When he makes fun of our inflatable kiddie pool, he says, “What is that, your swimming pool?” And I ad-libbed, “No, it’s a spa.” I could see the crew trying not to laugh because they didn’t want to ruin the take, but after Ron yelled “Cut” everybody f—ing cracked up. When we broke for lunch, Don disappeared into his mammoth trailer, and when he came back he handed me this script and said, “I’m doing a TV show after this, about a San Francisco cop. I want you to play my partner.” It was the script for Nash Bridges. And we went off together for the next six years.

Johnson: The role in Nash Bridges was written for an Irishman. I told him to read it, and wherever it says “Donovan”… And he goes, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Substitute ‘Dominguez.'”

Marin: Two weeks into Tin Cup, I was really trying my hardest, and Ron took me to dinner and asked how it was going. I said, “I just wanted to get two weeks in the can so it would be harder to fire me.” He gave me the oddest look and said, “This is your movie. Run with it.” And man, was that the best thing he could ever say. My favorite scene is the one where Roy and I get into a fight when he’s trying to qualify for the U.S. Open, and he breaks all of his clubs. I knew exactly how to play that one.

Shelton: Self-destructive behavior is at the heart of that scene. What’s surprising is the intensity Cheech brought to it. In my mind it was whimsical, but Cheech had such deep range in it. After the first take, he walked off, and I went after him and put my arm around him and said, “Is everything okay?” And he said, “This scene is me breaking up with Tommy Chong.” It was a remarkable moment, and it gave energy to the scene that maybe wasn’t even there.

McCord: There’s a scene in the movie where Roy hits a trick shot out of the bar and knocks a pelican off a post. Well, that actually happened to me. We were in Pensacola, and me and a few other players were trapped in our condo during a rainout. We had nothing to do but gamble. That’s what we golfers do. And I see this pelican land on a post. So I said, “Hey guys, give me 10 shots and I bet I can knock that pelican off his perch from my bedroom.” So I got up to move the lamp and open the sliding glass doors. I put the ball down, and they’re all hiding behind the couch because I’m going to fire off a 4-iron in this condo. I cut it right through the door and it sails right over the pelican’s head and he flies off. Best shot I’ve ever hit.

“Did McCord tell you the Johnny Miller story?”

Marin: I’ll tell you a story no one’s ever heard. We were between scenes, standing around, and someone came up with a bet. There was this really tall pine tree, and someone said to Phil Mickelson, “I bet you can’t put your shoulder against the tree, drop a ball and hit it over the tree.” The shot basically had to go straight up. Everybody threw in a hundred bucks. I think there was $1,200 in the pot. And he did it! When the ball was still in the air, Mickelson bent over, picked up the money, and put it in his pocket.

Johnson: That set was a blast. Sometimes Kevin and I didn’t get in until the wee hours of the morning, and I remember sitting in the makeup trailer one morning and looking over at him and he looked like something the cat dragged in. I looked the same, by the way.

McCord: We were shooting the final round of the U.S. Open scenes, in Houston, with 5,000 extras, and we’re waiting for Don and Kevin to come out. And they were hacked! Don had a house that he got Warner Bros. to rent for him, and Friday nights all hell would break loose with Cheech and Kevin. This morning they couldn’t see straight, and they had to hit the ball down the fairway. I mean, the extras would have had to worn helmets, or else they’d have been killed. So I got the guys extra-long tees and told them, “Hit it straight up in the air, anywhere, and we’ll have someone else hit the shot later.” Their swings looked pretty good, but the balls landed five fairways over. Anytime we had a Saturday shoot after Friday night at Don’s house, it was not good.

Costner: All I’ll say is, Don’s a great cruise director.

McCord: Houston wasn’t good for a lot of the guys, because it’s got a lot of topless bars. We were sitting in dailies, watching the footage from the previous day, and there were a lot of extras in the background. And Ron goes, “Hold on! Stop!” And he uses a laser pointer to point at these three girls with serious cleavage. And he goes, “All right, whose are those?” And an arm goes up from someone on the crew. The girls were from one of the t—y bars.

Foster: Did McCord tell you the Johnny Miller story? There’s a scene where Roy is shanking balls at the driving range at the U.S. Open, and Johnny, who’s standing next to him, says, “Change your grip a little bit.” Roy turns to Romeo and mutters some four-letter words. Well, Johnny’s a devout Mormon, and he had some sensitivity to that, and expressed it. It got a little tense.

McCord: One day when we were shooting in Arizona, Craig Stadler got stopped in a golf cart by the cops. He’d driven it to a liquor store a mile away and got pulled over with a golf cart full of beer. We were laughing. He was like, “Well, I’m sitting around here doing nothing all day!” I get that. The cops let him go.

Norville: Stadler was fabulous. I think a rider in his contract might have called for two cases of beer—which, by the way, he shared with the crew.

“It was the greatest 12 in golf history.”

Foster: It was a fun movie but also a real challenge. The biggest one was making sure the climactic scene in the final round of the Open, where Roy hits ball after ball into the water on the 18th hole, carried the drama necessary to make it still feel like a win for Roy, even though he takes a 12 on the hole. It was great on the page, and we didn’t want to blow it.

Marin: Man, that scene is excruciating to watch. And the studio didn’t want that ending. They wanted a happy ending. You wanted to ask them, “Have you not been watching this movie?” Ron really had to fight for it.

Shelton: We shot the holy hell out of that scene. In terms of angles and coverage, I shot it like it was the Normandy landing. I knew I had to make the same activity, five times in a row, build [dramatically] and not feel repetitive.

Costner: The extras didn’t know it was in the script, and I could hear them whispering, “God, he just can’t get it over the water. How long is he going to do this?” But that’s Ron’s notion of heroism. In the end, it was the greatest 12 in golf history. He understands that you don’t have to win to win.

McCord: When the movie was over, I remember we went to a test screening. I’m sitting with Kevin, and a woman in front of us turns to her husband during the last scene and says, “That’s bulls—. No pro would hit that many balls into the water.” I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Yes, they would, because I did it on the 16th hole at Memphis.” And she looked at me like, “Who the hell are you?”

“Was it a $100 million movie? No.”

Foster: The movie came out right after the ’96 Olympics. Nothing was doing well at the box office, but we opened at number one. Was it a $100 million movie? No. But we knew it was good. And it’s continued to grow. When Jean van de Velde was leading the British Open, and all he had to do was play it safe but instead hit it in the water, the guy on TV said, “My god, he’s pulling a Tin Cup!” It’s part of golf’s lexicon.

Johnson: To this day, whenever I run into Fred Couples or Phil Mickelson or any of the guys, they go, “Hey, wasn’t that a blast?” And it was! Anybody who loves golf sees that movie and says, “That’s what the game’s about.”

Shelton: Where do I think all of these characters are now? Roy, I would suspect, has managed to win a couple of small tournaments and is holding court in a small town somewhere with Molly. Romeo, I think, should be running the religious studies program at the University of Houston. And Simms has got it made with a 10-year contract with the Golf Channel—or he’s on the 15th hole for CBS, trying to wrangle his way into the booth with Jim Nantz.

Chris Nashawaty is Entertainment Weekly’s film critic.