Tin Cup: A box office hit that played its way into part of golfing fabric

While the film is obviously a work of fiction, there are many snapshots of reality

Rene Russo as Dr Molly Griswold and Kevin Costner as Roy  McAvoy

Rene Russo as Dr Molly Griswold and Kevin Costner as Roy McAvoy

 

The trouble with golfers is that we all take ourselves too seriously. God be with the days admittedly when you’d be at the 19th hole and someone in your company would, whether you liked it or not, take you through every single shot of their round and bore you to tears in displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of their inadequacies. As if anyone cared, really.

Thing is, even the worst golfer has a moment in time when somehow the act of performing the swing and making impact with the ball results in a pure strike. “A tuning fork goes off in your heart,” is how Roy McAvoy, the downbeat would-be pro played by Kevin Costner, puts it to Dr Molly Griswald, played by Rene Russo, to describe such a feeling at an early juncture of Tin Cup, a film – directed by Ron Shelton and released in 1996 – which has proven itself timeless in its portrayal of golf’s stereotypes and yet managing to provide realism within the comedic theme.

McAvoy, aka Tin Cup, is the central character – a one-time college star content to beat balls at a rundown range in the middle of nowhere who is transformed by psychologist Griswald to aim for a shot at the US Open – but there are other impressive performances, by Don Johnson in the role of tour star David Simms, and Cheech Marin, who plays the part of caddie Romeo Posar.

Indeed, the interplay between player and caddie on the range at the (fictitious) US Open perfectly captures the relationship that exists out on tour. A caddie is not just a bagman, he is also a sounding board, something of a sports shrink too. In the particular scene, McAvoy has a case of the dreaded shanks and is hitting one ball after another straight right down a line of actual PGA Tour players (more later of how they actually got to commit to the film).

“Maybe you should hit your putter, you can’t shank that,” suggests the caddie.

“Listen, you’re the Mexican Mac O’Grady, you’ve got to figure why I’m still shanking the ball,” retorts the player.

“I’m catching the hosel? Moving my head? I’m laying it off? I’m clearing too early? I’m clearing too late? ... My God, my swing feels like an unfolding lawn chair,” adds an exasperated McAvoy.

The solution as per Romeo.

“Take out your change, put it in your left hand pocket. Tie your left shoe in a double-knot. Turn your hat around backwards. Now, take this tee and stick it in your ... behind your left ear.”

“I look like a fool,” says McAvoy, then hitting a perfect shot. “How did I do that?”

“Because you’re not thinking about shanks. You’re not thinking about the doctor lady. You’re not thinking. Period. You’re looking like a fool and you’re hitting the ball pure and simple,” says the caddie, having provided a lesson in golfing psychology that applies to hacker and pro alike.

While the film is obviously a work of fiction, there are many snapshots of reality – many of which can be attributed to the fact that one-time tour player turned broadcaster Gary McCord was employed as a golf consultant in the making of the movie and also worked with Costner and Johnson on their golf techniques.

It was McCord’s influence that resulted in so many PGA Tour players playing cameo roles. If you scroll through the closing credits to Tin Cup, you will find an impressive list of professional players – among them Phil Mickelson, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Jerry Pate, Lee Janzen, Peter Jacobsen, Johnny Miller, Billy Mayfair, Steve Elkington, John Cook, Jeff Maggert – and their presence required some outside the box thinking.

The climatic end to the film brought Tin Cup into golfing lexicon, as a moment of recklessness in pursuit of glory
The climatic end to the film brought Tin Cup into golfing lexicon, as a moment of recklessness in pursuit of glory

Rather than go through their agents (and potentially require big appearance fees), McCord came up with the idea of inviting the players’ wives to a dinner hosted by Costner and Johnson.

“I witnessed greatness, they had the girls in the palm of their hands ... (afterwards), every wife comes up and says, ‘When do you need him there?’ No agents, no nothing,” McCord later recalled of managing to get so many top players onside for movie shoots.

For the golfing scenes, three different golf courses were used. The Deerwood and Forest courses at Kingwood Country Club in Texas were used for the US Open tournament segments (the film’s defining 18th hole is actually the fourth hole at Kingwood’s Deerwood course and the lake was specially built by the film’s production company), while Tubac Golf Resort in Arizona was also used, including the scene featuring the benefit tournament and later where McAvoy (Costner) challenges Simms (Johnson) to a long-drive contest using a 7-iron. Remember? After McAvoy crushes his iron down the range, Simms – demonstrating his apparent superior brain power – uses the club to hit his ball down the roadway.

You might notice that product placement was alive and well even back in the 1990s. Simms has a Nissan sponsored cap and uses TaylorMade clubs and bag ... what is not so obvious is that McAvoy too used TaylorMade, except the prop department took sandpaper to his metal driver to give it a wood-grain paint job so that it would pass off as an old steel-shafted persimmon driver.

For the film, Johnson also got golf lessons from McCord and Peter Kostis to work on his swing. Johnson was an “eight or nine” handicap when he was lined up for the main support role in the movie but claimed he couldn’t break 100 for the first week after McCord and Kostis got working on him. But three weeks into shooting, he saw a big improvement. “My score started coming down in big chunks. By the end of the film, I was a three (handicap),” said Johnson.

There are a number of improbable scenes through the movie, one of which involves the character of McAvoy playing a round with a baseball bat and shovel (which he uses to play a shot out of a greenside bunker); another in snapping the shaft of one club after another over his knee so that he is left with only a 7-iron to complete the back nine of his sectional qualifying; and another where he is challenged to hit a shot from inside the clubhouse after the first round of the US Open to move a pelican from its perch on a stake in the lake.

However, in a believe-it-or-not kind of revelation, that pelican scene is based on reality; and, again, McCord had a part to play as the real life player involved in such a scenario.

“We were in Pensacola (at a tournament in Florida), and me and a few other players were trapped in our condo during a rainout. We had nothing to do but game. That’s what we golfers do. And I see this pelican land on a post. So I said, ‘Hey guys, give me 10 shots and I bet I can knock that pelican off his perch from my bedroom’. So I got up to move the lamp and open the sliding glass doors. I put the ball down, and they’re all hiding behind the couch because I’m going to fire off a 4-iron. I cut it right through the door and it sails right over the pelican’s head and he flies off. Best shot I’ve ever hit.”

The climatic end to the film brought Tin Cup into golfing lexicon, as a moment of recklessness in pursuit of glory.

Yet, that conclusion – of McAvoy hitting ball after ball into the water – too was based on something that McCord had actually done in tournament play.

In McCord’s case, it came in the 1986 FedEx St Jude Classic at Colonial Country Club in Memphis. In his play of the Par 5 16th hole, McCord’s drive hit a tree and, then, with 209 yards left to carry to the green, he hit a 4-iron which came up short in the water. So did his next three attempts. With only one ball left in his bag, McCord switched to a 3-iron and made the green and sank a 12-footer for a 16.

“I suddenly realised then that I was using the wrong club. But it was a matter of principle,” said McCord in his rationale in repeatedly going for the green.

Thing is, fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction and there are many other accounts of players stubbornly sticking to what are now generally known as Tin Cup moments: in the 1996 Benson and Hedges tournament at the Oxfordshire (the year of the film’s release), none other than Pádraig Harrington ran up a 13 on the 17th hole; in 2013, Sergio Garcia was tied for the lead standing on the 17th hole of the final round in The Players at Sawgrass, only to put two balls into the water on the famed island hole (running up a quadruple bogey seven) and, for good measure, put his drive on the 18th into the drink too as Tiger Woods benefited from his splashes.

The ultimate real life version of Tin Cup, though? That would be none other than John Daly, who was playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in 1998.

Two-over on his round as he came to the Par 5 sixth hole, which features a dogleg left around a lake, Daly – as he had managed in practice – tried to carry the water (a carry of over 320 yards) but found the water. In moving closer to the lake for this third shot, Daly used a 3-wood and finally cleared the water on his sixth attempt but had further problems (mud, rocks and bunkers) before finally signing for an 18.

“After the fifth or sixth time. I just lost track,” said fellow tour player Paul Goydos, who was marking Daly’s card. “He just kept going. The crowd started yelling, ‘Tin Cup, Tin Cup’”

Fact, stranger than fiction, but evidence of how the movie – box office success and timeless – had played its way into part of golfing fabric.

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