Bagger's three-ball plays with history

The eternal pursuit of golf's inner game took a new twist last week with the release of the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, …

The eternal pursuit of golf's inner game took a new twist last week with the release of the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Will Smith as a mystical Depression-era caddie and Matt Damon as a war-addled veteran who engages Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones in a $10,000, winner-take-all match at a course on a mythical island off Savannah, Georgia, in 1931.

Based on Steven Pressfield's novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance is a rather unwieldy recreation of the Bhagavadgita, substituting golf for warfare and Will Smith for the supreme Hindu deity Krishna. (That "Bagger Vance" derives from "Bhagavan" has met with some displeasure from the Hindu community is unsurprising. Fundamentalist Christians might react the same way to a film with a caddie called "Jesse Christ".) Damon's shell-shocked character is named "Runnalph Junuh", which is as close as the film-makers dared get to Prince Arjuna of the ancient Sanskrit epic.

Personally, I also consider Bagger Vance a sacrilege, though I'd have been a lot less bothered if they'd just let Damon play his silly match against two fictional opponents. By attempting to squeeze Hagen and Jones into roles meant for a couple of Punjabi armies, the film-makers have managed to offend the sensibilities of anyone who has studied, or cared about, the traditions and history of the game.

Gloriously photographed and directed by Robert Redford, the film has been largely well-received, even in screenings before tour players and caddies. Which isn't altogether surprising: PGA golfers can be a woefully ignorant lot, particularly when it comes to their own history. But Bobby Jones never played for a stake of any sort in his entire career, let alone $10,000.


Although he renounced his amateur status when he retired following his celebrated Grand Slam in 1930, Jones played competitively only once a year thereafter - and it would be a stretch to describe his annual appearances in the Masters Tournament (which he had founded) as "competitive" at all. He had already lost his putting touch to the incipient ravages of a spinal disease called syringomelia, which would, over 40 years, kill him.

Between 1914, when Hagen won his first US Open, and 1930, when Jones completed his sweep of the British and US Amateur and Open titles, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones won an aggregate 25 majors. Hagen captained the first six American Ryder Cup teams; Jones served in the same capacity for the Walker Cup.

They were the perfect sporting icons for the Roaring Twenties. When they returned following their respective British Open wins, Hagen and Jones were feted with ticker-tape parades, with hundreds of thousands lining the streets of New York. And if Jones was the most respected sportsman of his day, Hagen wasn't far behind. As Gene Sarazen said at Hagen's death in 1967, "all the professionals who have a chance to go after the big money today should say a silent thanks to Walter each time they stretch a check between their fingers. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is."

Jones, the courtly lawyer, was the consummate family man, Hagen the legendary playboy, and both came to tragically undignified ends. Jones slowly withered away to the point that he became so physically grotesque that he had to be removed from the Masters green jacket ceremony lest he offend television viewers.

Hagen, who had by all accounts been a terrible husband and not much better a father, attempted in his later years to atone for this shortcoming by showering his affections on his only grandson, only to have Walter Hagen III die at 15 when he was accidentally shot through the forehead by a playmate.

Jones and Hagen did play frequently against one another, of course. They were fellow-competitors in British and US Opens, as well as in numerous exhibitions. In the most celebrated of these, their 1926 "Battle of the Century" in Sarasota, Florida, Hagen overwhelmed Jones, winning 12 and 11.

They even played the odd exhibition match after Jones' retirement. The last and most famous of these occurred in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1941, when Jones (partnered by Tommy Armour) defeated Hagen and Sarazen in a match to benefit the Red Cross. The Duke of Windsor, then serving as governor of the Bahamas, refereed the match, and as Hagen assayed a putt he reportedly said to the former Edward VIII, "Eddie, take the flag".

Hagen later claimed that what he said was "Caddie, take the flag", but he did not deny that he had been exceedingly familiar with the former king of England. " `Eddie'," he said, "was a slip which would have been easy for me to make." In any case, the incident indisputably occurred in 1941, but in the film Hagen describes it to Junuh 10 years earlier, making him even more clairvoyant than Bagger Vance. The flamboyant Hagen's golfing clothes were the stuff of legend, but the film's costume designer makes Damon look as if he'd stolen Redford's wardrobe from The Great Gatsby and then shared the booty with his caddie.

Not only was Bagger Vance evidently the best-dressed caddie in the Old Confederacy, but he is variously portrayed lounging in a rocking chair on the clubhouse porch and sharing quality time with the players in the locker-room. Had he tried either in 1930s Georgia, Will Smith would have been dangling from the nearest oak tree.

But the most fraudulent aspect of all comes in the format of the big match. Having Hagen and Jones engage Matt Damon in three-ball medal play in 1931 is every bit as preposterous as having had them pull out a Titanium driver. It just wouldn't have happened.

The only occasions calling for this format arose when one of the Open championships ended in a three-way tie and called for a play-off. (This did occasionally happen, most famously in 1913, when Francis Ouimet defeated Vardon and Ray at The Country Club. But for a 7 on the 14th at Brookline the day before, Hagen might have joined them.)

No, Bobby Jones was off in Hollywood making movies in 1931, but if he had squared off with Hagen that year, it would unquestionably have been at matchplay. And had a third party somehow managed to infiltrate the proceedings, their reaction would have been swift and unanimous.

"Go get Sarazen," they'd have said, "and we'll make it a fourball."