It's appropriate that the first major Pro-Am PGA golf tournament of the year, the Bob Hope Classic, which begins Jan. 17, was created by a comedian. Because let's face it, the only really good movies about the sport are funny ones. The serious ones tend to be double bogeys with audiences, critics and golfers alike.
"When you are sending golf up, the stuff is great," says golf journalist Jeff Silverman, who has written for such publications as Sports Illustrated and is working on a book about Pennsylvania's famed Merion Golf Club. "But when you look at the serious attempts to do golf movies with messages about the importance of the game, they are absolutely weighed down by the pretense of the messages, which is why the funny movies work."
Since Hollywood's earliest days, golf has been a frequent movie subject (perhaps because so many studio execs and stars play; hence, the longtime tradition of the celebrity golf tournament). But turning that interest into popular films has been tricky.
Scoring a birdie in Silverman's eyes is Ron Shelton's 1996 romantic comedy "Tin Cup," starring Kevin Costner as a washed-up golf pro working at a golf range who decides to qualify for the U.S. Open in hopes of winning the heart of a slick pro's ( Don Johnson) girlfriend ( Rene Russo).
"Tin Cup" hits a hole in one, says Silverman, because Shelton "had the sensibility to understand that you don't make movies about golf, you use golf as a window into the character. If the movie is just about golf, it's absolutely dreadful."
Early golf movies, such as W.C. Fields' 1930 short "The Golf Specialist" and the 1930 musical comedy "Love in the Rough," with Robert Montgomery, were all funny. "The whole idea of the clothes, the ball, the swing… The Three Stooges did a golf movie ['Three Little Beers'], and in the Our Gang comedy ['Divot Diggers'], Spanky used a monkey as a caddie."
The first golf movie on most people's minds is 1980's "Caddyshack," which scored below-par notices from the critics but became a cult favorite with audiences. Directed by Harold Ramis, the film starred Michael O'Keefe as a caddie at an upscale country club, Chevy Chase as the son of one of the club's co-founders, Rodney Dangerfield as a nouveau-riche real estate tycoon and Bill Murray as a, well, Bill Murray-esque greens keeper trying to rid a gopher from the club.
Silverman, though, is far more enthusiastic about Adam Sandler's 1996 "Happy Gilmore," about an unsuccessful ice hockey player who discovers he has a talent for golf. The film is best known for a hilarious brawl between Sandler and "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker.
As for the serious golf movies, don't get Silverman started on the 1951 Ben Hogan biopic "Follow the Sun," with Glenn Ford, which he feels is strictly miniature golf. "Ben Hogan is one of the great stories of all time, and 'Follow the Sun' may be the worse movie ever made."
Not much better is the 2004 biopic disaster "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius," starring Jim Caviezel ("The Passion of the Christ") as the famed golfer. "He looks like he never saw a club in his life." And Robert Redford's 2000 golf parable "The Legend of Bagger Vance," says Silverman, gets bogged down in its own pretension.
Ironically, the literature written about the game, from Ring Lardner to John Updike, he says, is "gorgeous." Silverman was especially taken with Mark Frost's book "The Greatest Game Ever Played," about how working-class Francis Ouimet became the first amateur to win the U.S. Open in 1913.
But the 2005 film version, adapted by Frost, starring Shia LaBeouf as Ouimet, falls into one sand trap after another.
"Early on in the movie, you start getting all of these facts wrong," he says. "You have a scene where young Francis Ouimet is studying a yardage book that are made to help you around the golf course. These books didn't come until the 1970s, until Jack Nicklaus created them. The movie was over for me."
This beloved comedian, known for playing the violin (badly), was a celebrity golfer in his day. Who is he?
Hint: He drove a Maxwell on his radio and TV series.
Answer: Jack Benny