Based on the popular novel by Steven Pressfield, The Legend of Bagger Vance opens with elderly Hardy Greaves, played by Jack Lemon, suffering a mild heart attack on the golf course. Sinking to the ground, he asks himself why he continues to risk his life by playing golf. The answer comes when he tells the story of how he, as a young boy, played brilliantly by J. Michael Moncrief, helps to convince local Savannah golfer Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) to play golf legends Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) in an exhibition match.
I saw this film on the first anniversary of my father’s death from congestive heart failure. My father started teaching me the game at age eleven; we played it together all his life, and it kept us friends. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my father when in the final scene of the film, the older Hardy gets on his feet and pulls his cart toward a sunset-lit green muttering, “You can’t win this game—you can only play it.” Needless to say, this film will trigger an emotional response regardless of how well it holds up to critical scrutiny— which is not all that well.
Director Robert Redford once made a baseball film, The Natural, in which the audience has no trouble believing, from the way he swings the bat and throws the ball, that he might be a talented, even great, baseball player. Redford also starred in the film The Horse Whisperer, where he demonstrates his great intuitive ease around horses. Redford collaborated on A River Runs Through It, in which actor Brad Pitt totally convinces us of his skills with a fly-fishing rod. Why then would Redford make a golf movie in which only one of the principal actors (Gretsch) has a good swing? After all, this is supposed to be a movie about finding a “lost” golf swing. Looking at Damon swing simply defies Coleridge’s poetic axiom about the “willing suspension of disbelief.”
There were moments when Damon’s position at the top of his back-swing made me fear for the safety of the actor and the spectators lining the hole. Why wouldn’t any of Redford’s golf advisers, or even the golfers in his crew, have convinced Redford to protect the credibility of his movie? Actor Chris O’Donnell has the romantic good looks of Damon but also a scratch handicap—was he considered? What about soap star Jack Wagner, who’s good enough to turn professional?
But the problem lies deeper: Throughout the film, I waited for those moments that every golfer associates with the beauty of the game— the soaring ball against the blue sky, the explosion of the ball off the club face, the roll of the ball putted over the dangerous slope of the green. There is only one moment in the film when Redford achieves this effect, and not surprisingly, it is made possible by the expertise possessed by Gretsch playing Bobby Jones.
Having made this basic complaint, I can move on to the part of the movie that Redford clearly does get right—the way golf, like many games, intersects with life. The character Bagger Vance, played by Will Smith, is a mysterious black caddy who appears in the night to offer Junuh help in locating his lost swing. Vance is part caddy, part young sage, part spiritual guru. It would have been preferable if Vance had been played by an older actor like Morgan Freeman, who possesses the natural gravitas to converse about the soul, the harmony of the universe, and “the authentic swing.” But Smith carries off the role well, delivering his spiritual counsel with humorous understatement.
Junuh, once a teenage golfing phenomenon, has returned from World War I with a shattered psyche. Not only has he not returned to the golf course, he has not returned to his girlfriend, Adele Invergordon (played by Charlize Theron). Junuh needs to find not only his swing but also himself. To the nongolfing skeptic, I would defend that premise: The golf swing, or lack of it, clearly expresses one’s place on the peace-of-mind scale.
One of the greatest living golf teachers, Jack Burke of Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, just told me that he’s recommending reading Mother Teresa to golfers who have trouble finding their swing. In Burke’s Catholic world, the key is self-forgetfulness. In Vance’s world, the key is finding the so-called authentic swing. Vance challenges Junuh to let go of the cynicism and hopelessness that befell him after seeing his entire unit mowed down on the battlefields of France.
The previews of The Legend of Bagger Vance raise the awful specter of one Charlize Theron as Adele Invergordon more great story being unnecessarily smothered by a love story designed to market the film. Fortunately, Redford doesn’t let this happen. In fact, Theron’s turn as the beautiful, young owner of the Krewe Island Golf Resort is quite convincing. Among the actors, only Theron seems to have gone to the trouble of finding something resembling the appropriate accent. And in a movie in which the period clothing, especially the men’s plus fours, golf socks, and two-toned shoes, are a visual treat, it is Theron, in her Depression-period dresses, who steals the show.
The movie was filmed on location in Savannah and Jekyll Island, Georgia, and on the coast of South Carolina, including the Pete Dye Course at the Colleton River Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina, and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. A totally new hole was built at the Ocean Course for the film, with a 220 carry over water from the tee to the fairway. On my last trip to Kiawah, I snuck onto this hole early in the morning and furtively played it. I can attest that the carry to the fairway looks at least as long as 220 yards, maybe farther. I won’t reveal how I played the hole, but I will say that there is no way that even a Jones or a Hagen could have driven the ball as close to the green as depicted in the film.
The climax of the match takes place on this fairway. Here Junuh faces a dilemma more fundamental than finding his lost golf swing: He faces an issue of honesty. Most of the people seeing this film will not realize that this precise situation was faced by Bobby Jones in the U.S. Open Championship of 1926, an episode that revealed Jones’s character in real life just as it reveals Junuh’s in the film. Damon, by the way, bears an uncanny resemblance to Bobby Jones in the face and form, but not in the swing. Perhaps if Damon gets serious about his golf game, he could star in the inevitable film on the life of the greatest golfer of all time, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. of Atlanta.
A great movie about golf, Bagger Vance is not; perhaps that will be made by Sean Connery who is filming another popular golf novel about a caddie/philosopher, Shivas Irons, called Golf in the Kingdom. Connery is known to choose the locations of his films so that he can play regular rounds of golf—at least he knows what the game should look like.
Yet, what Redford has achieved is an emotionally resonant story about the way all games are inextricably tangled up with the ebb and flow of life. Give a child a stick and ball when he is angry, and he will hit it differently than a child who is content. Grown-ups are no different. As Vance says, you must “let go” of certain things to swing the club well, and when you do, much more returns to you than a low score, or winning. You learn, like the elder Hardy Greaves, to get on your feet, keep playing, and enjoy the game.