In college, a requirement for my liberal arts degree was taking a physical activity. I chose golf. I’d never played golf in my life, but I did see the movie Tin Cup.
Seeing a movie and playing golf are two completely different things, and indeed, I sucked at golf. (I did, however, at least enjoy practicing at the driving range.) I barely made the effort to even turn up for class. As I recall, I cheated on the “final,” which required the class to play 9 holes at a local course, without having done anything but hit from a driving range on campus. In other words, I still didn’t know how to play golf, despite having taken the class for four months.
A friend played 9 holes for me and slipped me his scorecard, which I submitted for class. Son of a bitch! I made an “A.”
That was the sort of solution that Tin Cup‘s Roy McAvoy would probably have devised. As played by Kevin Costner, McAvoy is a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants ne’er do well who once had a shot at becoming a great professional golfer. Beer, women, and an intrinsically lackadaisical attitude, however, undermined Roy, to the point that the movie finds him running a pro shop in West Texas. He’s not so great at running things. In fact, he has almost no business until a sexy psychologist, Dr. Mollie Griswold (Rene Russo), strolls into his life looking for a few golf lessons.
Tin Cup does for golf what director Ron Shelton’s other great sports movie, Bull Durham, did for minor league baseball: it elevates the game to the level of the sexy, cerebral romantic comedy. Both star Costner as the seasoned would-be pro who takes pride in his inability to break through to the majors. He knows — and possesses — what it takes to make millions of dollars at the game he loves. He also knows there’s something in his character, his own psychological makeup, that’s preventing him from getting there. And, he doesn’t mind. In fact, he’d rather labor in obscurity than try and overcome his “inner demons.”
This movie came along at an interesting time for Costner, whose career was riddled with three-hour box office flops. Despite winning the Oscar for Dances With Wolves (a film that has only grown in stature over 30 years), Costner was rapidly becoming something of a has-been. Tin Cup portrays McAvoy as a never-was, but the two conditions look might similar here. With a world-weary grin, snarky laugh and razor-sharp sense of humor (much of it self-deprecating), Costner convinces as a man who’d rather play by his own rules than anybody else’s.
Golf is not an inherently exciting sport; perhaps only a Tiger Woods can enliven it sufficiently to make me watch it on TV. But Tin Cup contains a number of golf matches that are not only exciting but terrifically funny. And there are several amusing bets on “impossible” golf shots that make the movie more than worthwhile. There is also the surprisingly sophisticated and interesting relationship between Roy and Dr. Mollie. Russo was at the height of her leading-lady appeal and makes a significant comic foil for Costner.
The film seems headed for a Rocky-style conclusion, in which Roy (presumably) wins the US Open as well as Mollie’s heart. But Tin Cup has the audacity to end on a completely different note, in a way that kind of defines Costner at that point in his career. Rather than play the safe but boring shot, Roy does things his way, in classic underdog style. Costner himself would refuse the safe path in his career, seeming to sacrifice his A-list status in a Quixotic effort to make an individual statement. Roy never makes his shot, but becomes something of a folk hero. Costner himself has never been hotter, though his career went into deep freeze for a few years. Tin Cup knows a lot about its star, but it also knows a lot about golf, romance, and life itself. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for a humble golf movie.