On a recent blustery, cold, rainy Sunday, our usual golf day, my wife and I considered not playing and instead going to see the new movie, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. I hit the Yahoo listings to no avail. From Boston all the way up to Derry, New Hampshire, three theaters were showing the film. Two had it scheduled for the last show of the day and one for the first and the last. There were no matinees.
This independently produced and distributed movie competes with such corporate behemoths as Kill Bill — Vol. 2 and 13 Going on 30. Brute truth number one: It can’t. Brute truth number two: Despite its many enjoyable virtues, Stroke of Genius simply does not succeed well enough as art or entertainment to compete on the basis of quality, either.
Stroke of Genius does very well what movies often do very well. It evokes the look, feel, sound, and even smell of a time and place. It’s a wonderful time and place, early 20th Century America, much of it down South. Children ride bikes on dirt roads and play by themselves in perfect safety, adults sit on porches and drink “Co’ Cola,” tumblers swathed in napkins against the dripping humidity. Men dress in starched shirts, waistcoats, suits, ties, and hats. Locomotives toot, automobiles sound their oogah horns, and bugs buzz in the bushes.
Golf, still a new game to America, spreads itself virtually in Robert Tyre Jones, Jr.’s front yard, in the then-out-country course of Eastlake (recently — in our age, that is — renovated from ruin in an Atlanta slum). Here, Jones’s father and his business pals take up the game and mostly play it badly, cussing (“Sh-t fahr!”), shanking, dubbing, flamming, and slicing. Newly imported Scottish pro Stewart Maiden advises one member, “Take two weeks off. Then don’t come back.”
“WEE BOBBY,” AS MAIDEN CALLS HIM, is wee indeed, a pale skinny waif afflicted with early stomach troubles, almost unable to eat for his first few years. As played by Devon Gearhart, Jones in childhood comes off as unaffectedly wonderful. He follows groups of golfers with his single club, imitating their swings in the trees off the fairways. He particularly imitates Maiden’s, which an old Scots pro would spot later in Jones’s game, identifying his “Carnoustie swing.” (Maiden hailed from that windy, near-impossible course.)
Bobby’s father, “Big Bob,” takes immense pride in the boy. His mother fusses and makes sure he keeps up with his studies. Maiden makes him “a few clubs” and invites him along on his first round. “Wee Bobby! Hit hell out of it!”
The narrative flows smoothly and powerfully into Jones’s adolescence, where actor Thomas Lewis takes over, most convincingly, and where Malcolm McDowell, as sportswriter O.B. Keeler, makes his entrance, and serves for the rest of the film as onscreen commentator and plot-pointer. Old pro McDowell makes this potentially thankless role into one of the movie’s strengths. Young Bobby wins the Georgia State Amateur tournament in 1916, and you can feel golf itself growing around him. He travels to New York with another Georgia golfer and competes in the U.S. Amateur for the first time, getting as far as the third round.
And then the adult Jones steps on stage, and the film begins to weaken for its failure to do what film so often fails to do: Define and reveal character.
STROKE OF GENIUS TRIES HARD to establish what Jones really was: unaffectedly regal, masterful, practically aglow with brilliance. You can see this Jones —the real one — in the golf instruction films he made after his retirement, with the awe-struck participation of Hollywood actors of the time. You can read this Jones in his superbly written books, Down the Fairway and Bobby Jones on Golf. (No ghostwriter for R.T. Jones, Jr.) You can watch the wonderful half-hour documentary produced by the Callaway Golf company, and see and hear Jones, terminally crippled in his middle years, struggle to his feet for the very last time to accept the Honor of the City in St. Andrews, Scotland. Remembering that occasion, Herbert Warren Wind recalled, “Billy Joe Patton turned to me and said, ‘He’s the greatest Southerner who ever lived.’”
That may just get it. Stroke of Genius, unfortunately, doesn’t. And neither does its star, Jim Caviezel.
To be fair, most of the fault may be laid to the screenplay, by director Rowdy Herrington and Tony DePaul. At the summit of Jones’s career, as he vaults toward his Grand Slam win — all four of the then-major tournaments in a single year, in 1930 — Herrington and DePaul concoct a weeper of a storyline about Jones doing what a man has to do while his wife suffers at home and complains that her man’s job is killing him. Sound familiar? Try any of a hundred cop shows. The screenplay has Jones uttering lines like, “All I ever wanted to be was a normal person” and “I have this feeling of predestination.”
Put to perform those scenes and those howlers, Caviezel adopts a tormented demeanor throughout. Yes, Jones suffered all his life from nervous disorders, rigidly kept private, and from his driven will to win, which led him to vomit before tournament rounds and to lose weight by the gallon when he played. Yes, until the early 1920s, he could not control a titanic temper. He threw clubs on-course and once walked off in the middle of a round at the British Open.
BUT BOB JONES (he didn’t like “Bobby”) never looked tormented, perhaps because he conquered all those ills. He looked amused by some private pleasure. Even reduced to a claw and a cigarette and a golf cart by his crippling illness in his later years at Augusta National, the course he helped design and build, Jones retained that look of lofty amusement. To a friend who inquired of his diagnosis, Jones said, while he could still walk, “It’s about as bad a thing as an athlete can have happen to him. But we won’t talk about that any more.” Combine that bearing — practically unknown today — with Jones’s grace of language and manner and with his legendary friendliness and generosity to those who knew him best, and you get some notion why he inspired the adoration he did. This was a man, after all, who shared a decade in the limelight with Babe Ruth and more than held his own.
The film is nonetheless physically beautiful and convincing in its actions. Caviezel spent hundreds of hours perfecting Jones’s swing, and he did a good job. Would that he had spent as much time on Jones’s character — or that the writers had given him some truly mature material to work with.