Fairway to Heaven

Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, May 24, 2004


Only three golfers have made a substantial impression on non-golfers: Tiger Woods today, Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, and Bobby Jones in the 1920s, when he was one of the five horsemen of the first golden age of sports, along with Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bill Tilden, and Jack Dempsey. The Georgia amateur is now memorialized in the solid little biopic "Bobby Jones - Stroke of Genius," starring Jim Caviezel of "The Passion."

Even mighty Jack Nicklaus meant little to those not bitten by the golf bug. Football, while complicated, so resembles two armies contesting a battlefield that newcomers can quickly grasp its appeal. But golf is a more curious affair that people either get or they don't. While most ball and stick games are played on standardized fields, golf courses are constructed at colossal expense to resemble, according to the latest sociobiological theory, our Stone Age mammoth hunter ancestors' idea of a happy hunting ground.

The game is frustrating to put on screen. Each hole's action usually diminishes into anticlimax. A pro typically wallops a 290-yard drive, followed by a 150-yard approach, a 25-foot putt, and a six-inch tap-in. Fortunately, nongolfing spouses should be able to tolerate being dragged to the movie because Jones' human story was so strong.

Most of today's big money sports emerged out of the Victorian era, but only golf retains many of its Victorian virtues. Even tennis, golf's country club colleague, long ago surrendered to its stars' on-court tantrums. Jones, who cost himself a U.S. Open title by penalizing himself for accidentally moving his ball such a negligible distance that no one else saw it, is the man most responsible for golf's continuing traditionalism. Jones was the idol of Nicklaus, who is in turn the idol of Woods, so Jones' style is likely to live on.

Caviezel, who was so memorable as Jesus, here plays a man who was admired almost as much. During his 95-year lifespan, the late Alistair Cooke met countless prominent people. Yet Cooke called Jones "one of the three or four finest human beings I've ever known… A whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life ... he nothing common did or mean… Bob Jones radiated goodness, yet without a smidgen of piety."

Jones, a Georgia amateur, exemplified the best in the Southern gentleman, the sporting equivalent of Generals Washington, Lee, and Marshall. This paladin was not just the greatest player of the mashie-niblick era, but also a lawyer who often argued before the Supreme Court, a gifted prose stylist, a lieutenant colonel in WWII, and founder of both the world's most prestigious golf club, Augusta National, and most exciting tournament, the Masters.

Indeed, some have argued that golf, a notoriously time-consuming sport, contributed to the downfall of the WASP ascendancy. Jones, though, played an average of only once or twice per week during his competitive career, which concluded in 1930 when he was merely 28 with his never-equaled Grand Slam of winning all four major championships.

Paradoxically, golf was the one thing that didn't come easy to this paragon. At age 14 he electrified the sporting world by nearly winning the U.S. Amateur. No golfer, not even Woods, was the object of more pressure to triumph at a younger age than Jones (at least until 14-year-old Hawaiian prodigy Michelle Wie arrived last year). But for seven lean years, Jones had to grow up in public as he struggled to control the temper that made him a club-throwing terror on the links. When a flung iron accidentally struck a lady spectator, he was suspended by United States Golf Association president George Walker (great-grandfather of United States president George Walker Bush).

Even during the subsequent seven fat years when he won 13 of the 21 major championships he entered, he was tormented by his sensitive emotions, which caused him to lose 15 pounds during tournaments, and by his declining health, which eventually put him in a wheelchair three years after he returned from combat in Normandy.

In a film without villains, drama is delivered by stressing Jones' pain. For cinematic suffering, Caveziel is definitely the new go-to guy. Refreshingly, in his dialogue with Jeremy Northam, who steals scenes as Jones' opposite, rival, and friend, the raffish pro Walter Hagen, Caviezel also achieves delightful screen chemistry.

Rated PG for post-foozled shot expletives.



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