In 1930, Robert Tyre Jones Jr. did what no golfer had ever accomplished … and none has ever repeated. He won the Grand Slam. However, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius is less about that monumental accomplishment than the years leading up to it and the many other ways Jones proved himself worthy of our admiration. He was an uncommon athlete and an extraordinary man. The film shows his rise to greatness, as well as the rough edges of character that needed shaping, primarily a fiery temper.
A frail child not allowed to play baseball with the other Georgia boys, young Bobby turned to golf. He studied pros who would play with his father, a middling golfer who used the links as a networking tool for his law practice. As he grew, Bobby showed signs of greatness. This became a point of contention between his dad (who supported Bobby and put pressure on him to win) and grandfather (who denied his own son a baseball career and didn’t want his grandson “fritterin’ away his time” on the putting green). At 14, Jones was teeing off against players twice his age in tournaments.
Bobby’s path wasn’t easy. Life had its sand traps. He battled ornery golf courses, colorful rivals, his own hypercompetitive nature and a debilitating illness. He emerged a legend.
Young Bobby imitates elders he respects, which gets him into some bad habits (swearing, throwing clubs, etc.) that lead to consequences later in life. Hence, adult viewers are reminded that little ears are listening, eyes are watching, and we need to be good role models. On the whole, Jones is a polite and generous lad. He works hard on his game. His mother tells him he can be a tiger, despite his physical disadvantages. Stewart Maiden, a seasoned pro who at first is irritated by the tenacious youngster, softens and shows Bobby kindness. Maiden even makes him a small set of clubs and invites him to play with the adults.
A sense of community surrounds Bobby’s rise. Even writer O.B. Keeler becomes a fan and mentor. When teenage Bobby loses a tournament, he complains to O.B. that the papers portrayed him as an angelic kid just happy to be there (“They made it seem like I didn’t mind losing”). Years later, Bobby concludes that there’s something to be said for losing now and then (“I’ve never learned anything from the tournaments I’ve won”). O.B. quotes proverbs and classic literature, and gives voice to many of the film’s morals. He recites the poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt (“For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name/He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game”), as well as Will Rogers’ statement, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Such nuggets appear throughout.
Jones is gracious, sporting and so honest that, at one point, he calls a costly penalty on himself during a major tournament. He knows he caused his ball to move, even though no one else saw it, and insists that he take an extra stroke. That turns out to be the difference in the match. Jones merely did it because it was the right thing to do. O.B., however, sees the heroism in it, stating, “There are things finer than winning championships.” When he gets bad breaks, including someone yelling “fore” just as he’s about to putt, Jones doesn’t make excuses. He takes them in stride and refuses to shift blame (“The megaphone didn’t beat me; Davey Aaron did. … I’ve got to learn to do better”).
Bobby Jones strikes the perfect balance of hailing an American hero without excusing his faults. Early on, Bobby has such a hard time at St. Andrews that he picks up his ball before finishing and leaves the course. His caddie chastises him for this shameful act (“You can be forgiven for losing, but nay for quitting”). A rival visits his room and encourages him to stick with it. This actually happened to Jones, who years later returned to the course and redeemed himself.
The movie is also an affectionate portrayal of a humble sportsman who today would be an anachronism. During WWI, he played charity events benefiting the war effort, and later remained a dedicated amateur. Despite becoming the best golfer in the world, he refused to turn pro. He wouldn’t accept a purse or cash in on endorsement deals. He was motivated by a love of the game and didn’t want it corrupted. Throughout his remarkable career, he earned a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech, went to law school and passed the bar, supporting himself along the way. He showed great integrity on and off the golf course.
Conversely, rival Walter Hagen lived to collect a paycheck and have his ego stroked (and is appropriately vilified for his arrogance and avarice). Hagen could be a walking, talking, big-screen metaphor for greedy, 21st century athletes who compete for astronomical pay, whine about their working conditions and issue demands through their agents. O.B. predicted, “Money. It’s gonna ruin sports.”
Hagen (a very real opportunist generations ahead of his time) isn’t your typical movie villain. He’s really a needy, sad character who feels threatened by, but comes to respect Jones. He points out that “golf is a game of recovery.” You make some bad shots, but one really great one can cover for those mistakes. One hopes that Hagen’s misspent years of self-centeredness might’ve been turned around in similar fashion, perhaps inspired by Bobby Jones. Viewers needing redemption can also find hope in the possibility that people can change for the better. That includes Jones. After developing a reputation for letting his temper get the best of him, Bobby apologizes formally and determines not to lose his cool anymore. (We see him in another stressful situation, during which he pulls himself together and resists the urge to blow up.)
The tension between Bobby’s father and grandfather remains thick through most of the story, but is resolved nicely, suggesting that the bond between generations is stronger than the differences of opinion that separate them. Bobby’s wife, Mary, is a strong and virtuous woman. She supports her husband and worries for Bobby’s health when his competitive drive blurs his perspective (he apologizes to her for being selfish). After winning the Grand Slam, he tells her tenderly, “I’m retiring from tournament golf. You fulfill my heart, Mary.”
Mary is a wholesome Catholic girl. She clutches her rosary and prays over a hospitalized Bobby. When her father chastises her for being interested in a non-Catholic boy, she quotes Matthew 7:1. Bobby’s grandfather is a pious man who considers playing golf on the Sabbath blasphemous, and won’t drink Coke because “there’s nothin’ ’bout Coca-Cola in the Bible.” He scolds his employees, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop!” Several lines indicate that Bobby’s mother puts stock in astrology, including her detailed explanation of the Chinese zodiac. As a teen, Bobby mentions that he has his lucky shoes and a four-leaf clover. The scurrilous Walter Hagen is said to have “broken all eleven of the Ten Commandments.” Lawyer Bobby Jones gently assures an elderly client (who is worried because someone told him to “go to hell”), “I checked the law on that and you don’t have to go.”
Flip college girls mock Mary for being one who doesn’t “pet.” Mary and Bobby kiss. It is implied that Hagen is a womanizer.
O.B. punches a man who is verbally harassing him. Jones hurls a glass jar against a wall in exasperation. Frustrated golfers throw clubs. When one of Jones’ drivers accidentally strikes a woman in the gallery, he is immediately repentant. Still, he gets taken to task in the papers—and by his dad—for his lack of self-control. It is implied that a bicyclist collides with a car.
Approximately 40 profanities, most of which erupt after golfers make bad shots. There are a half-dozen or so s-words and just as many exclamations of “S.O.B” (not abbreviated). It may bother some viewers that Bobby uses profanity on the golf course from an early age, though the film doesn’t condone it. When we hear an angry “s‑‑‑fire!” out of him at age 6, it’s a startling, sobering reminder that children will mimic what they observe in their elders (in this case, his dad). As an adolescent, this character flaw earns Jones a reputation for being a hothead, which he overcomes as he matures.
Films set in the early 1900s tend to include a fair amount of drinking, and this one’s no exception. Men pull flasks of whiskey from inside their jackets. O.B. shares a slug or two with Bobby. Walter Hagen drinks booze and pours a little into Jones’ Coke. After a match, Hagen suggests that they get drunk together. College students drink mugs of beer at a pub (Mary is belittled by girls for abstaining and Bobby defends her honor). Other scenes also involve social drinking.
A golf pro explains that the decision to make a round of golf 18 holes originated with the realization that there were 18 shots in a bottle of whiskey—one hole for each shot, and when the booze was gone, the game was over. Also, several characters—including an adult Bobby Jones—smoke cigarettes. (Parents of teens may use these moments to point out that, back then, we didn’t know as much about the health risks associated with alcohol and tobacco.) Bobby takes “stomach medicine” as he battles the debilitating neurological disorder syringomyelia.
It is implied several times that gambling is endemic to the game of golf. The money-hungry Hagan feels the need to place side bets on his performance during charity events just so he’ll earn something for his efforts.
Fresh off his stint as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, Jim Caviezel turns in a terrific, understated performance in this title role. He was originally approached to play the Walter Hagen part, but convinced the producers to let him take a swing at Bobby Jones. I’m glad they relented. Not just because he shines as the soft-spoken protagonist, but because Jeremy Northam is wonderful as the greasy, pitiable Hagen. This is an independent film made on a tight budget, so its fine cast clearly was not in it for the money. Like the man at the center of the story, they all did it for the love of the game. And it shows.
Going into this film, the name Bobby Jones meant very little to me. I knew he was a golfer. Legendary, in fact. But I have to admit, I’ve never been a big fan of golf. I’ve played a few times and tend to agree with Mark Twain, who referred to the game as “a good walk spoiled.” So to say that Bobby Jones won me over at every level is no small pat on the back. This pleasant, beautifully photographed period film is entertaining and rife with moral themes. In fact, I walked out so impressed with Jones’ “life well lived” that I couldn’t wait to read more about him. Bobby Jones wasn’t perfect, but he was a humble guy whose integrity, sportsmanship and refusal to play for money make him a fascinating character study today.
It’s sad that our kids covet trading cards featuring egomaniacal multimillionaires quick to say they’re not role models. Can cynical young fans of extreme sports relate to a straight-arrow, 1920s golfer in knickers? I sure hope so. I would have preferred a little less profanity and alcohol use, but some families with older children won’t mind hitting out of the rough if it means benefiting from powerful moral lessons. In an age of steroid-enhanced sluggers, NFL holdouts and hoopsters who spend as much time in court as on a court, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius is as scintillating as a dew-drenched fairway with visibility all the way to the pin. Come to think of it, I really ought to give the game another chance.