If the Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had been father and son, their story would play a lot like that of Thomas Morris and his son, Tommy Jr.
More than anyone before or since, these 19th-century Scotsmen refined, codified and popularized the game of golf.
That most of today’s 60 million golfers have never heard of the Morris clan is a crime. The new film “Tommy’s Honour” is poised to remedy this situation.
Director Jason Connery (Sean’s son) and scripters Pamela Martin and Kevin Cook have fashioned a great-looking duo biopic that delves into the origins of a huge popular sport, follows one character’s tragic arc amid generational conflicts and delivers a swift kick to an overbearing British class system.
It’s a satisfying mix of sport, personal drama and social conscience.
In the 1850s, young Tommy Morris grows up under the wing of Tom Morris Sr. (the ever reliable Peter Mullan), who runs what today you’d call the pro shop at Scotland’s St. Andrews Links where the game was invented a century earlier.
Tom Senior’s job description is flexible. He coaches players (invariably they are drawn from the snobbish nobility). He designs and manufactures clubs and other equipment in his shop. He maintains the course. He caddies.
And he plays professionally, though that means something different than what we now recognize as professional golfing.
There are no prize purses. Instead, the elder Morris is sponsored by a cabal of rich gentlemen. Each match is surrounded by furious wagering; when Tom triumphs, his backers give him a share of the winnings. How much is up to them. Being a working class bloke, he accepts that this is the way things are.
Young Tommy (Jack Lowden) comes of age with a club in his hand and by his late teens can outplay his father. But whereas Dad is an undemanding traditionalist, Tommy announces to the rich swells that from now on he’ll collect the winning bets and dole out the money to them.
The stuffed shirts (Sam Neill plays their leader) grouse but finally give in. The kid is that good. He’s the sport’s first true superstar.
Much of “Tommy’s Honour” centers on the tensions this situation generates within the Morris family. Young Tommy and his father are at philosophical loggerheads (can golf stay a gentleman’s game once self-aggrandizement and profit motive are slipped into the mix?).
And then there’s the matter of Tommy’s romance with a domestic (Ophelia Lovibond) several years his senior. Mother Morris (Therese Bradley) objects so strongly to her new daughter-in-law that the family is nearly torn apart.
All this is modestly entertaining. What will really catch the attention of modern audiences are the film’s depictions of golf tournaments in the mid-1800s, which more resemble a wandering mob than a well-organized sport.
For starters, the fans surround the players, getting so close that they risk taking a club to the chin during tee-off. They taunt the golfers and each other, noisily calling out their wagers. Brawling is not uncommon.
In its third act, “Tommy’s Honour” takes a dark turn. You can read about it on the Internet; I won’t spill anything here.
But it leaves audiences mourning lost opportunities while reveling in the creation of a passionately enjoyed pastime that has spread around the globe.
As origin stories go, “Tommy’s Honour” is a match for any superhero flick ever made.