The game of golf—at least the concept behind it—is a simple one: You’ve got a ball. You’ve got some clubs. You’ve got to smack said ball with said clubs until the ball finds the bottom of a designated hole. Easy, right?
Anyone who’s spent time hacking away on a golf course knows it’s not so elementary. The reality can be enough to drive you to therapy.
It’s a little like life that way.
Old Tom Morris loved the game. For decades, he prowled the links of Scotland, designing its courses, grooming its grounds, and caddying for the rich, top-hatted gentlemen who filled its courses. He played the game too, of course. And oh, how he played. He helped found the Open Championship (which we Yanks call the British Open today) in 1860 and won the thing four times.
But for all his love and all his success, he never lost sight of his humble station. He worked for the moneyed elite both on and off the course. British gentlemen bet on him and his game as if he were a race horse, and Old Tom was simply happy to share in their wealth if he was good enough to win.
Old Tom taught his son, Tommy, both to love and play the ancient game. He assumed that Young Tom would follow in his footsteps. He’d become a caddy to the island elite, groom the courses, play the game with pride and passion.
But as much as Tommy loves his da, he has other plans for his life—some plans that could change golf forever, and others that don’t include golf at all.
Father and son are so alike, but so different. So often they share a broad, lush fairway, traveling to the green with ease and grace. But when they differ, their lives land in a bunker or stream. All they can do is what any golfer can: Try to fight through the hazard and find the fairway again.
Sometimes, not so much.
Tommy’s Honour is really the story of Young Tom Morris, one of golf’s early legends, as seen through the eyes of his father. And while the story is not without the tang of tragedy and regret, the father’s love for his son—and the son’s reciprocation of that deep affection—comes through strongly here.
Yes, the younger Tommy does push against the traditions that his father holds close to his bosom. But perhaps some of those traditions needed to be pushed against, the movie suggests.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, golf existed primarily as a sport for rich folks to bet on. They set up moneyed matches and wagered on them, paying the golfers a bit of whatever they won. As such, golfers like the Morrises were wholly dependent on both their play and the generosity of their backers.
Young Tommy believes that, as the actual golfers, they should have more say in what they would get paid and when. (The real Young Tom Morris was one of the first golfers to earn “appearance money.”) Through his actions and convictions, Young Tom helps establish a more fair, merit-based payment system for competing golfers.
Young Tom’s also a natural innovator, creating a new style of play with irons and even inventing the golf bag (what he called a “golf quiver”). But even as he is fascinated with the new, Young Tom appreciates tradition, too. And he respects his father enough to forgo a chance to become a course golf pro in England—a job that would’ve paid him far more than he was earning in St. Andrews, Scotland—and instead stays home to be with father and family, carrying on the proud Morris legacy. And when Old Tom makes a decision that would be, for some, unforgiveable, Young Tom forgives him anyway.
And while Old Tom isn’t the sometimes rebellious innovator that his son is, he’s rightfully proud of Young Tommy’s accomplishments. He positively glows with it when he makes a speech following Young Tom’s third straight win at the Open—a feat thought to be impossible by many and one that firmly put Young Tom’s golfing accomplishments ahead of his own.
The Morris family regularly attends church (led by a clergyman with seriously impressive sideburns). Old Tom’s Wife, Nancy, is particularly devout. We often see her reading from the Bible, sometimes in moments of crisis. When she catches a very young Tommy telling his younger siblings tales of London, she scolds him, saying that he should be setting a “Christian example” and not distracting other kids from their lessons. And while Nancy eventually has a falling out with her pastor when he scolds parishioners for “seeking glory” and trying to “rise above their station” (a pointed critique of the Morrises), that relational collapse doesn’t impact her core faith.
Young Tom’s commitment to the faith seems less fervent. When we see him in a pew early on, it almost seems as though he’s counting down the time to when he can leave and carouse with his friends. But Tommy still marries his sweetheart, Margaret, in a church. The pastor tells the couple and the congregants that they’re gathered “in the sight of God” and reminds everyone that “marriage is ordained for the procreation of children.”
Elsewhere, young Tom chastises his father for his seemingly all-encompassing commitment to the sport he helped create. “Golf is your god, Dad,” he says. “It’s not mine.”
Before Margaret and Young Tom met, Margaret had a relationship that led to a child. And the fact that she had an illegitimate child caused polite society at the time to deem Margaret “damaged goods.” Nancy tells Tommy that Margaret was “named and shamed in her own church,” and that Young Tom should cavort with such a “fallen” woman is a full-blown family scandal.
Tommy does indeed carnally cavort with Margaret well before their marriage. She leads him up to her room shortly after they meet (which, in itself, would likely have been a scandal in those days), and we see them kiss a couple of times. That’s a prelude to more extreme affections, it’s suggested, before the camera leaves the room. We never see the couple engage in anything explicit, but they’re quite affectionate, kissing and holding hands throughout. One day, as Young Tom leaves Margaret’s home, he sees that someone’s nailed a nasty missive on her door: “Here lives Tommy’s tart,” it reads.
Tommy’s parents refuse to attend Young Tom and Margaret’s wedding. But when Nancy also refuses to attend a holiday dinner hosted by Tommy and Margaret, the latter has had enough, storming to Nancy’s house to confront her.
“Tommy chose me!” she tells Nancy. “You understand? You might think otherwise—plenty do. I know what people think of me.” It’s then that Margaret tells Nancy the sad fate of her first child, a baby girl who died just weeks after she was born. “Many a day I wished her fate was my own,” she admits. The confrontation leads to a reconciliation—to the point that when Margaret is giving birth to Tommy’s child, Nancy doesn’t leave her side until it’s absolutely necessary.
Tommy’s friends go to a brothel, dragging Tommy along: They go in, but Tommy hangs back, deciding to visit Margaret instead. A man talks about how his friend had a “romance” the night before.
The early game of golf could get a bit violent at times—at least among the spectators. Several brawls ignite during golf events, with lots of pushing and the occasional fist thrown. None of these melees turn particularly bloody, however.
Golfers sometimes throw their clubs or smash them into the ground after a bad shot. We also see boxers square off in a makeshift ring, but no punches are thrown.
During a brutal round of golf played in the snow, Young Tommy collapses. While he finishes the match, he soon falls terribly ill and dies in his parents’ house. The film suggests that many factors contributed to his death, including his drinking and a family tragedy. Speaking of which …
[Spoiler Warning] Margaret dies in childbirth, as does the child she was carrying. We see her in agony in bed, blood-soaked cloth visible below her waist. Young Tommy, who was playing an important golf match at the time with his father, comes too late to see his wife alive. He (and we) see her corpse instead.
The characters’ thick Scottish brogue can make profane dialogue hard to pinpoint exactly, but we hear at least one variation of the s-word. We also hear sporadic lesser profanities, such as “b–tard,” “h—” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused once.
Alcohol use and abuse was seemingly quite common in those early days of golf. Scores of people drink, sometimes to excess. During one golf tourney, a putter asks Old Tom what first place is. A goose, Tom says. But when the golfer is told that “a bowl of whiskey” is the second-place award, the putter turns around and launches his ball the other way, thus securing the loss. (He later shares the last drops of his second-place prize with the winner.) Folks drink wine, beer, occasionally champagne and, of course, lots of whiskey.
We don’t see anyone drink as heavily as Young Tommy, however. Throughout his youth, we see him stagger through the streets with his mates, singing loudly as they sway down the path together. He sometimes takes swigs from a flask on the golf course, too (as do others). One day, in the teeth of deep grief, Tommy drinks so much that he falls unconscious, slumped against his own front door. (His friends furiously try to revive him, given that he’s due to compete in an important event.)
As mentioned, golfing orbited around another pastime: betting. And though Young Tommy wants to change the economic structure of golf, he’s not trying to move it away from its gambling predilections; he simply wants to profit more from them.
[Spoiler Warning] During a critical golf match, Old Tom receives a telegram meant for Tommy, begging the lad to come home and see his wife who’s in labor. Old Tom keeps the telegram away from his son over the course of the game’s final three holes, leading to what’s nearly a permanent breech in their relationship when Tommy fails to get home before she dies.
Tommy’s Honour is a heartfelt, sometimes difficult dramatization of two of golf’s founding fathers. Despite the film’s PG rating, its content is still pretty mature.
While we see nothing graphic on screen, Young Tom’s relationship with Margaret, along with her previous illicit dalliance, form much of the story’s backbone. Drinking and gambling are inescapable elements, too. And the world of golf we see here is a much rougher, messier one than we might expect if our primary exposure to the sport is through the pristine fairways, lush greens and well-behaved crowds of the Masters on TV. Indeed, the environs feel a little more like sitting in the cheap seats of an MMA event.
But hey, real life has a tendency to be difficult and messy, too. Everything we see here—the gambling, Tommy’s drinking, Margaret’s illegitimate child—was pulled right from what we know of the real Young Tom Morris and the era he grew up in. Tommy’s Honour does indeed have some problematic content, but it’s not gratuitous, and the makers deal with it honestly but delicately.
And though the film deals with a subject that could have devolved into an overused cliché—a young upstart son rebelling against his father’s sense of propriety and tradition and “how things are done”—the nuance with which their complex relationship is dealt with worked for me. Yes, the son “rebels” in a sense—but he does so even as he feels a deep sense of gratitude toward his father and an understanding of the honor at stake. Yes, the father is sometimes exasperated by his son’s headstrong ways. But he’s proud, too. Even in the most difficult moments, Old Tom tries to find ways to love the younger one.
A throwaway scene perhaps best illustrates this dynamic. One of Old Tom’s sons is crippled, and he’s carried everywhere he goes. On New Year’s Eve, Young Tommy straps his brother to a makeshift roller so that the boy’s other brothers and sisters can pull him around the property. Old Tom and Young Tom look on, happy.
“Fine work you did on that chariot, Dad,” Young Tom says.
“I won’t take credit for that, son,” Old Tom answers. “It was all your idea.”
A traditional craftsman honoring the innovative inventor, and vice versa. A father and son bowing to one another’s gifts. If only we could all learn to relate so gracefully in life.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.