By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published May 6, 2004
“Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” is a well-made, old-fashioned movie about one of the heroes of the golfing world; the style of the film makes it appealing, even for the non-golf fans in the audience.
The film opens as Bobby Jones returns to St. Andrews, Scotland in 1936, years after he has retired from competitive golf. It is a moving moment as he realizes that the entire town has turned out at the Old Course to see “their Bobby” play a round of golf. From the beginning, the film insists on the legendary status of the golfer and the high esteem in which he is held to this day.
One of the most interesting sequences in the film depicts Jones’s childhood. A sickly child, he is fascinated by the game from an early age because his protective mother would not let him participate in rougher sports with other boys. He learns the game by following his father and other golfers around East Lake Country Club and mimicking their swings. The film also shows him as an adolescent prodigy, as interested in ice cream as he is with golf, and as a young man taking the golf world by storm.
Jim Caviezel, most recently seen as Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” plays Jones with solemnity. Apart from a bad blond wig, he is entirely convincing as the famous golfer. The film develops an admirable portrait of the man as sportsman and dutiful family man. One of the most telling scenes occurs when he calls a penalty on himself in a major tournament. No one has noticed that he has accidentally moved his ball, but he insists on taking the penalty, demonstrating the honesty inherent in his code of conduct.
His duty to his family is also apparent. As his friend O.B. Keeler mentions, most of his actions stem from a desire to do what his wife, his grandfather, or his parents expect of him. He tries to learn from his mistakes, most notably a tendency to indulge in temper tantrums on the course, and he remains stoic in the face of a variety of health problems. He believes in his talents, yet he remains humble. The film consistently portrays him as a legend in the making.
Of note is the character of Jones’s wife, Mary, played by Claire Forlani. Mary is a Roman Catholic, and her father forbids her to see Jones because he is not. Evidently finding out that his daughter’s beau is the Bobby Jones softens the blow, because the couple share a sweet courtship and a loving marriage. Mary’s faith is on display in a hospital scene as she is shown saying the rosary as she sits by Jones’ bedside.
The film establishes chief rival Walter Hagen as a foil for Jones. Portrayed by Jeremy Northam with great charm and charisma, Hagen is everything Jones is not: he does not take life seriously, chases women, leads a decadent lifestyle, and, most importantly, is primarily interested in golf for the money he can make. His cavalier attitude hides a strong competitive spirit, however, and the two golfers become friends.
The distinction between amateur and professional is an important theme in the movie. Bobby Jones never turned pro, and his status as amateur makes him, in the terms of the film, more of a pure sportsman: untainted by the lure of money. O.B. Keeler states that money will “ruin” sports. However, Bobby Jones’ decision not to play golf professionally is never fully explored to a satisfactory extent in the film. At one point a man begins to rudely question Jones about when he will begin to take endorsements, and Jones angrily replies that the origin of the word “amateur” comes from having a love for the game.
Apart from this comment, we never see that this is an issue for Jones. Other characters offer opinions, but he does not acknowledge these opinions. On this point the film seems a bit smug. Jones comes from a very privileged background, so a need for money is not a problem; even when he must travel to golf tournaments and attend school, all at the same time he is supporting a growing family. How he funds his lifestyle is never addressed, except for a brief scene showing him attempting to sell a house as a real estate agent. On the other hand, Walter Hagen constantly refers to how he earns his living. In one scene, Hagen has to borrow money from his caddy to place some side bets to keep them solvent. Although much is made of the pros earning money from the tournaments, the purses were nowhere near the million-dollar-plus championships of today.
In addition to not needing the money, Jones’ decision might have had something to do with social status. Professional golf was in its infancy, and the touring pro at the time was considered a second-class citizen. This attitude is hinted at in a scene in which defending U.S. Open champion Hagen must park his car outside a country club and use it as a dressing room because touring pros were not allowed in the clubhouse dressing rooms.
All of the historical touches in “Bobby Jones” are realistic. The costumes, cars, and interiors add to the authenticity of the film, and any viewer from Georgia will smile when the Jones family and their visitors enjoy some “Co-cola.”
Director Rowdy Herrington does an excellent job of making the game of golf exciting to the viewer. In the golf scenes he wisely emphasizes the beauty of the swing and the trajectory of the ball rather than the suspense of the matches. The cinematography of the golf scenes is also outstanding. The Old Course at St. Andrews deserves billing as one of the stars of the film; the rough beauty of a links golf course is stunning. In addition, the Georgia golf courses hold their own with their towering pines and rolling green fairways.
The climax of the film comes as Jones pursues his dream of winning the Grand Slam, at the time composed of the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur tournaments. The film flirts with the idea of destiny as Jones tries to convince his wife to support his quest by telling her he feels as though he was meant to accomplish the feat. Tellingly, this accomplishment has never been matched. “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” is an enjoyable film that gives us a hero displaying fortitude, vision and honor.