"Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" – More Than a Golf Movie
- Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
- 2004 30 Apr
He spoke six languages. He had three degrees, including one from Harvard University. He founded a prestigious law firm and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was in Normandy, France, one day after D-Day. He created one of the most-renowned golf courses in the world and designed a set of popular playing clubs that were widely used in the sport. He was and is the only golfer to ever win the Gram Slam Championship.
Renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice called him “not one in a million …[but] one in ten million – or perhaps one in fifty million.”
He was speaking, of course, of Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., better known as Bobby Jones. Sportsman, scholar, writer, teacher, attorney, golf-course designer and family man, Jones was nevertheless best known for his love of the game – his insistence on remaining an amateur golfer, when everyone around him was taking home cash prizes of thousands of dollars.
He is, perhaps, the greatest legend the sport has ever known.
Now, the rest of the world will know Jones, too, thanks to an independent film about his life, “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.”
More to the Story
“It’s so much more than a golf movie,” said Executive Producer Rick Eldridge. “Jones had the adversity of a disease to overcome, family dysfunction, a love relationship with his wife to maintain. There’s so much more to his story than most people know.”
Made in cooperation with the Jones family, the film follows the story of Jones’ life to a tee. An only child born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1902, to Colonel Robert P. Jones, an avid golfer and a prominent Atlanta attorney, Bobby Jones was so ill that he could not eat solid food until he was five years old. When the family moved to their summer home next to the East Lake Country Club, Bobby followed the golfers – particularly East Lake’s Scottish pro, Stewart Maiden – imitating their swings.
Although he never received any formal training, Jones won his first tournament, , at the age of six. He won both the East Lake Invitational and the Georgia Amateur tournaments at just 14, which qualified him for the U.S. Open. He was the youngest player to be eligible for and play in a U.S. Amateur Championship. Although he did not win, he came in second behind defending champion Bob Gardner.
With success came pressure, not only from the public but from Jones’ own desire to succeed. According to his biography, Jones was an inwardly-driven perfectionist who placed tremendous pressure on himself, which caused him to lose as much as fifteen pounds during a tournament. He also struggled with his temper.
Much like modern-day tennis champion John McEnroe, Jones had a tendency to curse and throw his golf clubs after a disappointing swing – something that the press was only too happy to report. Rice once wrote that Jones had the “face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf.”
“There are some emotions that cannot be endured with a golf club in your hand,” said Jones’ character in the film, by way of explanation.
Faithful to Jones' Life
Played by actor Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Jones comes across as a winsome guy who, though he smokes, drinks and curses, is nevertheless appreciated by all as a gentleman. According to Eldridge, the actor and the legend share many of the same qualities.
“Jim is a wonderful guy,” he said. “He’s shy and reserved, and a deep thinker. In fact, the values and virtues of Bobby Jones are exactly the ones that Jim has.”
The filmmakers insisted on a movie that was wholesome enough for families (reflected by the PG rating), but they also had to be faithful to Jones’ life.
“We had to tell the story the way it was,” Eldridge said. “Everybody smoked in the 30s, not only Bobby but all the golfers. Nobody would have believed it if we had removed that from the film. And we did deal with Jones’ temper, but we used what we could to convey what happened, and how Jones was forced to deal with that issue.”
Caviezel does an excellent job with the role, showing Jones’ struggle for privacy and family life, which rivaled his desire to win and created much of the stress that led to his anger problem.
Atlanta Journal sportswriter O.B. Keeler (played by Malcolm McDowell, “Star Trek: Generations”) traveled with Jones throughout most of his career and explained it this way to Jones’ father, Big Bob (Brett Rice, “Remember the Titans”): “He’s trying to please you, his mother and the whole city of Atlanta. Maybe throwing clubs is the only way to relieve the pressure.”
Interestingly enough, the film also depicts the young boy imitating not only golf swings, but the men’s tempers on the golf course. His father, in particular, had a tendency to swear when he did not make a shot – and we see several scenes where the young boy is clearly repeating exactly what he has seen.
A Place of Reckoning
Whether nature or nurture, Jones’ temper eventually brought him to a place of reckoning during the 1921 British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Traveling with a group of American golfers, he lost the British Amateur at Royal Liverpool, then journeyed on to Scotland. Although he struggled with the challenging course, Jones still led all the amateurs during the first two rounds. He played badly during the third round, however, and eventually landed in Hell Bunker. Unable to dislodge the ball from the high walls of the sand trap, Jones withdrew from the tournament.
He was disparaged by the British press, but did not get his temper under control under several years later, after injuring a bystander during a tournament and being rebuked by officials. He eventually went back to St. Andrews to win the coveted championship, where he insisted upon leaving the trophy with the people of the town, thus winning their hearts.
In 1927, Jones won the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur and the British Open – all within four months of each other – earning him the title of Grand Slam Champion. But, unbeknownst to anyone, a painful disorder of the central nervous system, syringomyelia, was plaguing him, causing tremendous discomfort and shaking in his limbs. And his wife, Mary, played by actress Claire Forlani (“Meet Joe Black”) was anxious for her husband to settle down.
According to the film’s production notes, in later years, a fire threatened their home and Mary was unable to extract Jones from his wheelchair, where the disease had forced him. So she sat down next to him and prepared to die alongside her husband. The incident, though not portrayed in the film, nevertheless reveals the kind of woman Mary Jones was, and Forlani was able to convey that intense devotion to her husband and children.
Other notable characters in the film include Jones’ grandfather (Dan Albright), a fundamentalist preacher who believed that sports and even drinking Coca-Cola were sins; Jones’ mother (Connie Ray), who had a penchant for astrology; the infamous professional golfer, Walter Hagen (Jeremy Northam), who had a corrupting influence but who nevertheless remained Jones’ friend; and champion golfers Alex Stirling and Perry Adair.
The film also highlights the importance of family. Jones’ parents stood behind their son, giving him unrivaled support. Even his grandfather, who took years to finally come around, finally gave his grandson a much-needed blessing – which enabled him to win his first major tournament, ending what Keeler had dubbed “the seven lean years” and ushering in “the seven fat years.”
Feels Like an Epic
With a budget of just $20 million, “Bobby Jones” still manages to feel like an epic film, even if a small one. It is the first film ever shot on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“We wanted to put the money on the screen, and with our locations – Augusta National, East Lake Golf Club and St. Andrews – I think we’ve done just that,” Eldridge said.
Director of photography Tom Stern brought a technical team from Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” and James Horner (“House of Sand and Fog”) scored the film, which gives new meaning to the word “independent.” Though it moves slowly at times and the conflict is mild, the story works. The overall effect is a gentle but inspiring saga that uplifts the spirits.
Jones retired from golf in 1928, having traveled more than 120,000 miles and created a record that has yet to be beat. He was 28 years old. He went on to build a successful law practice that remains one of Atlanta’s largest firms. And, in 1933, Jones’ tribute to St. Andrews, the Augusta National, opened amid great fanfare. It is host to one of the four major golf tournaments played today.
Jones died in 1971 at the age of 69. The flag in front of the clubhouse on the 18th hole at St. Andrew’s was lowered to half-staff and players ceased their game, in a final homage.
When asked how he coped with paralysis after being celebrated for his glorious swing, Jones once replied, “We all have to play the ball as it lies.” It was a statement that described his life.