It is a hard thing to pursue greatness, and a harder thing still to do so as the son of a great man.
After all, if one fails to achieve parity with your father — the most likely outcome, given the odds of talent, drive and circumstance combining in just the right way — then you are forever destined to be forgotten as the footnote in his shadow.
But then there is the remoter possibility: surpassing him. Then you must contend with watching the man who raised you knocked down a peg in the eyes of not just everyone else, but your own.
“Tommy’s Honour” is a marvelous movie about a pair of great 19th-century Scottish golfers, Thomas Morris Sr. and Thomas Morris Jr. They are famous throughout the United Kingdom and beyond, known simply as Old Tom and Young Tom.
They competed together in set matches against other players, each won multiple championships in the early years of what is now the British Open, pioneered new equipment and strategies, built and played on some of the most storied courses in the world.
Old Tom is generally regarded as the founding father of the modern game. And Young Tom? He was simply the best player the world had seen until that time.
The film is directed by Jason Connery, son of Sean, of whom you may have heard. Did a bit of acting in his day, retired now, reputedly an enthusiastic golfer throughout his life. You can see the appeal the tale of the Morrises held for the younger Connery.
The screenplay is by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, based on Cook’s 2007 book of the same title. It combines a sense of history, a love of the game and above all an appreciation for the difficult, bittersweet relationship father and son shared.
Old Tom (Peter Mullan) is very much a product of his time. He is beholden and deferential to the wealthy gentlemen who comprise the Prestwick Golf Club, where he is employed as chief caddie, greens keeper and proprietor of the golf shop. He literally carved the course himself out of the Scottish scrublands, and operates as sort of the local patron saint of golf. But as the story opens, he’s going on 50 and his game has started to fall off.
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Tommy (Jack Lowden) is a prodigy and the captain of the club (Sam Neill) and the rest want him to enter competitions on their behalf. In this day, players competed against each other, generally one-on-one or matched pairs, with the club members putting up and collecting most of the stakes.
Tommy impertinently refuses to knuckle under to the gentry, believing those who play and win the game deserve most of the spoils. He envisions a new role, the professional golfer who plays from course to course, unruled by those who would appoint themselves master of the game.
As the years pass and his reputation grows, Old Tom continues to be embarrassed by Young Tom’s upstart ways. His wooing of Margaret, a servant a decade his senior played by Ophelia Lovibond, vexes his parents further, especially after her past reputation is found to be wanting.
I loved the dichotomy between the two men. Lithe, fair-haired and handsome — nearly pretty — Young Tom’s mien and happy-go-lucky demeanor mask a man of tremendous determination and passion.
Mullan’s broad, beautiful face, bushy beard and stocky block of a man is an exercise in subtle stoicism. Watching his son take, and make, a daring shot, Old Tom’s face seems to move not a twitch. But oh, the eyes are smiling.
In truth, I’d rather do just about anything than play golf. “A good walk, spoiled,” said Samuel Clemens, and none have said it better. In its modern conception, I can think of few things that waste as much money, time and patience as golf.
But here’s a beautiful movie about father and son who were both divided and bound together by the game. I’ve read that it only rained one day during the shooting of “Tommy’s Honour,” which if you know Scotland practically constitutes a miracle.