The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V-3 ; L-1 ; S/N-1 Running time: c. 2 hours

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.
Romans 12:16

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:1-4

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
1 Timothy 4:12

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Director Bill Paxton and writer Mark Frost’s film is based on the true story of the 1913 US Open. Never before or since has there been such an incredibly dramatic play off as that between a youthful amateur and the two best golfers in the world. Do not be misled by the subject, if you are not an avid golf fan. The drama and the “David against two Goliaths” theme, as one character puts it, will more than hold your attention.

The film starts out many years before the 1913 tournament. In England we see a sleepy-eyed boy come out of his thatched-roof cottage at daybreak. He is surprised to see a number of well-dressed men in tall hats driving in stakes and looking over the land. When he asks what they are doing, one of the haughty men says that they are going to build a golf course, but that it will not be for the likes of the boy. Thus we are introduced to young Harry Vardon, as he is introduced to the class snobbery that will dog him all of his life. Harry (Stephen Dillan) will grow up to become the best golf player in the world, and some claim, for all time, but, as we see later, because his father is a gardener, Harry will not be admitted to the gentleman’s club he so desires to be a member of, despite his world-wide fame.

But this film is not about Harry Vardon; it is about Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf). Interestingly enough, while he was in grade school living across the street in Boston from a golf course, he had been able to contribute to the family’s meager treasury by caddying. He has grown to love the game and longs to play it, though the strict club rules forbid caddies from playing. Nonetheless, Harry practices his putting late at night, his mother at times having to come and stop him so that his brother can sleep. He is excited at the news that his hero Harry Vardon is coming to town, but his father Arthur (Elias Koteas) will not hear of him cutting school in order to go to the sporting goods store where Vardon is appearing. But his sympathetic mother Mary (Marnie McPhail) quietly takes the boy in tow, and they wind up at the store, where Harry volunteers to come up on the platform with Vardon. Ordered to take a swing at the ball, the boy swings with no control, the ball hitting far from the mark. The crowd laughs at the embarrassed boy, but Vardon addresses him kindly, showing him a proper grip and instructing him how to relax a little. The second time, Francis hits the target, and Harry compliments him, saying he has a natural talent.

And so Francis does. The film jumps ahead to end of his teen years. The young man still caddies, but he has apparently been able to find some green time. A golfer at the club and the golf storeowner take an interest in Harry, helping him with advice, equipment and the means to enter the qualifying rounds of an amateur tournament. Out on the green Harry meets Freddy Wallis (Max Kasch), scion of a wealthy businessman, who believes that the “lower element” has no place on a golf course. Francis also meets Sara Wallis (Peyton List), the snob’s sister, who is much more open to him. However, Harry fails to qualify to the joy of Freddy, so he sees little of her for some time. Harry had entered the tournament with money borrowed from his father, the terms being that if he lost, he would give up golf. Arthur, a hard working laborer, saw little future in a gentleman’s game, his boy needing to be more practical.

The next year, Harry is approached by his mentors about trying again to qualify, both of them thinking that this time he could qualify for the U.S. Open Tournament, and that playing in the Open, even if he stood no chance of winning, would be a good experience for him. At first he turns them down, having kept his promise to his father to give up golf. But he learns that Harry Vardon, who had once won the U.S. Open, is coming, along with the current British champion, Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus). He goes and asks to sign up. He does qualify, thus allowing him entrance to the club dance, where again he meets Sara, and her family. Brother Freddy is upset, telling Francis to stay away from his sister.

Harry’s father is very upset when he learns that his son has gone against his word and signed up for the tournament. He tells him that after the tournament Francis will have to leave and find other lodging. The day before the tournament Harry’s caddy tells him that he has been offered a large sum of money to caddy for a professional golfer. His family is poor, so he cannot afford to turn down the offer, even though this leaves Francis in the lurch. A high, small voice announces that he will caddy for him. Francis cannot believe his eyes, the 10 year-old Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter) looking smaller than Francis’ bag! The boy convinces Francis to give him a chance, and Francis, not having any alternative, agrees. Eddie goes home elated, Francis wondering.

Eddie proves to be a good caddy, despite the ridicule from some of the onlookers. He has obviously caddied or been around golfers, because his advice proves to be good. At first the youngest entrant is ignored by everyone, all eyes being on the current U.S. champion, and the two Brits, who are favored to win. As the days pass, and Francis continues to maintain a good score, he wins the admiration of a growing number. Harry Vardon and Ted Ray continue to lead, and when the American champion falls by the wayside, Francis, steadily moving up the ranks of competitors, is left to carry the cause of America. By now the newspapers have been mentioning him, and then he is touted as the country’s “last chance” for keeping the championship cup on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks to editing and CGI enhanced camera work that takes us right along the arc of the balls, the last rounds of the tournament are fascinating to behold.

What deepened the film for me is the recurrent theme of class prejudice on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a sad scene in which Harry Vardon and a friend keep an appointment at the London gentleman’s club, where Harry expects to be invited to join—after all, he is considered the best golfer in the world. He is crestfallen to learn that they are offering him a job at the club, not a membership. After this, no matter how high Harry rises, he is plagued by classism, symbolized in the film by his seeing numerous times a menacing group of men in tall hats watching him with disapproval. This seems puzzling at first, until we think back to that first scene in the move. The film is sometime confusing, switching back and forth between the story of Francis and that of Harry, but we come to see that it is not only their love of golf that unites them, but also their having been victimized by class prejudice.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) Were you puzzled at first by the film beginning in the 1870’s at an English cottage, and then jumping ahead? How does this appropriately set the stage for what follows? Were you puzzled at first by the appearances of The Men In Tall Hats? When did you realize their symbolism?

2) What are some instances of class snobbery in the film? How does James 2:1-9 show that this has been a problem in the church as well? Do you think it still is? Do our churches display a wide diversity of members, or does the membership of each congregation seem to be narrowly focused in terms of class, race or economical level?

3) Whom does Lord Northcliffe (Peter Firth) bother the most, Harry Vardon or Ted Ray?

Some golf historians have said that Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet greatly aided the democratization of golf: how have sports sometimes led more than the church in changing society? (E.g. Baseball?)