The founding father of golf, Old Tom Morris, designed some of the world’s first courses, but it was his son, Tommy, who mastered them. Though he only lived to the age of 24, Young Tom helped to define the game as it is known today, rising above his station as the son of a lower-class Scottish caddy to become one of the sport’s first professional stars. The way “Tommy’s Honour” tells it, Old Tom (who is played by that master of stoicism Peter Mullan in stiff tweed suits and a wild-bramble beard) didn’t much approve of his son’s desire to rise above his station, making for a standard-issue father/son clash-of-wills drama, brought to the screen by Jason Connery, who’s had his own challenges filling dad’s shoes.
“Tommy’s Honour” premiered at the Palm Springs Film Festival, where an audience of graying golf enthusiasts tore themselves away from the fairway to enjoy this early chapter in the sport’s history — and that’s effectively the same crowd Roadside Attractions hopes to lure when the film opens domestically April 14. While not as primitive as “The Flintstones” cartoons have imagined Stone Age golf, the version seen here is a far rougher sport, played with handmade balls and wooden clubs on fields of coarse grass so different from the manicured lawns to which modern players are accustomed that the film’s intrepid locations scouts must have been hard-pressed to find suitable courses.
But the real discovery here is Jack Lowden, a fresh-faced young stage actor who plays Tommy Morris with the dashing self-confidence of a 1920s Hollywood screen idol — though the film takes place roughly half a century earlier. Like the film’s director, Tommy grew up on a golf course, and it’s assumed by the uptight club members at St Andrews Links (as embodied by a snooty, red-suited Sam Neill) that the young man will become a caddy like his father. But Tommy has no interest in spending his days lugging clubs and teeing up balls for his betters, and devises a plan to play for money.
Sporting gentlemen had already been placing bets on Tommy and his father, who competed as a team, settling for tips whenever they won. It’s a recurring source of tension that Old Tom was a natural with long shots, but lousy on the putting green, and like one of those would-be rockers in a 1960s-set British music biopic, Tommy couldn’t suppress his rebellious streak, ultimately insisting that the gamblers pay him to play.
Today, golf stars are groomed from an early age, à la Tiger Woods, and though Tommy clearly spends most of his free time golfing, his father constantly reminds him of his place. That makes for a rather predictable standoff, accompanied by a parallel stalemate with his mother when Tommy insists on marrying an older woman with a scandalous past (Ophelia Lovibond). Still, there’s something universal enough in these struggles that the scenes prove effective, despite their familiarity.
In fact, these interpersonal moments prove far more compelling than the golf, enriched as they are by the chemistry between the leads. It helps that Mullan isn’t playing a monster (as he terrifyingly did in “Tyrannosaur”); rather, he’s a gruff pragmatist bound by the rules of an earlier generation, ultimately humbled by the tragedy that awaits his son.
While there’s a certain charm in seeing these early sportsmen dressed as though ready for mass (no kilts, alas), the golf scenes are undone by the fact that no one can actually swing a club. For some roles, actors will learn to play an instrument of master a manual skill, but there’s none of that authenticity here. Instead, Connery has gone back in post and unconvincingly inserted digital balls, which defy the laws of physics as blatantly as the CG goo in Disney’s “Flubber.” The strategy robs us of what little thrill golf has to offer, whether spectating live or on TV, as impossible shots remain precisely that: impossible.
Thankfully, Connery has kept the story’s human side grounded in the real world, and those are the only stakes that matter.