To describe "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" in golf parlance, this biography of the legendary golfer shoots par. That's certainly better than a triple-bogey, but far short of a hole-in-one.
What hurts its score is the limited range of its appeal. A great sports movie -- "Hoosiers,"Seabiscuit,"Miracle" -- reaches beyond the fans of its sport to address universal audiences. While there's a high likelihood that this golf-heavy drama will find acceptance among those who partake in the game, it's harder to envision non-players sitting through the extensive tournament footage, especially seeing as how one drive down the middle of the fairway looks like pretty much like every other drive down the middle -- even to devotees.
Adding to the disappointment is that in many ways, Jones' story off the golf course was even more interesting. Yes, as a golfer, he was without peer in his era (and, many believe, any era). He is the only person to win all four "majors" in the same year (although in those days, those major tournaments included the U.S. and British amateur championships).
But the conditions under which he accomplished that are truly astounding. He was plagued by genetic health problems and crippled by nervous tension. Unwilling to turn professional because he felt it impugned the sport's purity, between tournaments he earned two college degrees followed by a law degree. He practiced law all day, then went home and practiced golf by knocking balls into a rug he had hung in his garage.
The movie acknowledges these things but comes up woefully short in exploring them. Director Rowdy Herrington -- he made the other "Gladiator," the one you didn't see, a 1992 movie about boxing -- is too obsessed with Jones' athletic feats to give his other accomplishments their due.
Jones is played by Jim Caviezel ("The Passion of the Christ"), whose quiet, intelligent aura fits the character to a tee (sorry; couldn't resist at least one golf pun). This was the post-World War I era when golf was truly a "gentleman's game." Players wore coats and ties (only under the hottest conditions were they allowed to shed their jackets, but never their ties) and addressed one another on the course as "Mr."
One problem with playing a reserved character is that it leaves open the potential for being upstaged, as Caviezel is in his scenes with Jeremy Northam ("An Ideal Husband"). He plays Walter Hagen, Jones' primary rival -- and, eventually, his best friend -- who was as flamboyant as Jones was modest. Northam enthusiastically mines Hagen's robust approach to life, a pleasant change of pace after yet another scene in which Caviezel broods through more of Jones' angst.
Also overshadowed is Claire Forlani ("Northfork") as Jones' wife, Mary. One reason Jones initially was attracted to Mary was that she paid no attention to golf and, to put it in clichéd terms -- which this film is not above doing -- she liked him for himself, not his fame. Alas, her lack of interest in golf results in a corresponding lack of interest in her by Herrington. We end up seeing almost as much of Jones' caddie.
Perhaps golf is just too internalized to make great drama. Maybe it's not a coincidence that the best golf movies ever made are still "Caddyshack" and "Happy Gilmore." It's a sport that is destined to always get the last laugh.