Golf film better than par, baseball flick is way under Movies: 'Tin Cup' shows the touch of a director who knows his way around sports and athletes. The director of 'The Fan' ought to go see what a game is like.

September 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

It happens periodically in film culture, one of those possibly accidental boomlets, a convergence of theme with reality. It is interesting, is it not, that just as Baltimore's own sporting fortunes have gotten so provocative, what with the Orioles and the Ravens filling the air with hope, that Hollywood has produced two films to play on the yearnings of the sports-addicted masses, Ron Shelton's "Tin Cup" and Tony Scott's "The Fan."

Given the pedigree of the men who churned them out, it's not a surprise that of the two, Shelton's is the more pungent. He is a former professional athlete (he was an infielder in the home team's low minors; never could hit a curveball), and his work has long shown an empathy for that elite class of alpha males who struggle to make a living and possibly even earn some glory with their reflexes and hand-eye coordination. And he's no cliche-master either: as "Bull Durham" showed, he knows there's as much pain as gain in professional sports and that they can oh-so-frequently work out in the following paradigm, perhaps because that was the lesson of his own career: plenty of guts, still no glory.

And Shelton is also a kind of connoisseur of men behaving badly. He understands that the testosterone it takes to wage sports aggressively between the chalk lines can also diffuse into the other parts of the brain, soften them in a brine of hostility and create nastiness for everybody. His corrosive portrait of the dirtiest white boy of them all, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, took sports biography about as far as it could go, demythologizing the great center fielder to the point of pathology. Shelton's Cobb was no Georgia Peach -- he was the pits: a world-class sonofabitch, a misanthrope's misanthrope.

Now, in "Tin Cup," Shelton combines both those interests: It's a study of bad-boy pathology as it blows up in the head of a testosterone-crazed golfer, one Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy, a low-rent West Texas driving-range pro who, under his beer-swilling scruffiness, may have the stuff to win the big ones at the very highest levels of the game.

But then again, he may not. McAvoy is one of those familiar cases: the man with the physical gifts but not the mental one. He somehow crumbles under pressure and looks for ways to destroy himself and his oncoming prosperity. He's an exceedingly ugly quadruple bogey waiting -- yearning -- to happen.

The dilemma that always destroys him is the play-it-safe or go-for-broke thing: In the case of golf, this means choosing between an easy lay-up before the green, followed by a safe par; or trying to hit for the green from a long way off with almost no margin of error. Roy always hits the 3-wood to the green; he never makes it.

"Tin Cup" is therefore the story of his almost-redemption from the madness of going-for-it. With Kevin Costner displaying more charm than he has since "Durham," the film watches as Roy finally finds a way to motivate himself -- love for sports shrink Rene Russo, who happens to be the fiancee of smug tour regular Don Johnson -- and starts winning for the first time in his life until, by the sport's arcane rules, he qualifies for the U.S. Open.

Yet as Roy falters -- we know he will -- somehow the film falters too. I had to wonder if Shelton, so shrewd about the subtleties of so many sporting worlds, really gets golf in the way he got baseball. It's an almost unique sport, which is why it is interesting.

It's the only sport -- the only one -- where no other human agent interferes with the course of your ball. Only the course plays defense: You can't be swatted, or moved or thrown out or struck out or fouled out. The "competition" in golf is, at least theoretically, interior. For viewers, the foursomes and the leader board are illusions that turn a tournament into a metaphor of a chase sport, but really in the golfer's world there isonly a minimal accrual of elements: the choice of the club, the lie of the ball, the direction of the wind and, biggest of all, the shape of the head.

That utter delicacy is what is so fascinating. To win at this game you need only vanquish one enemy, but he, like Cobb, is an

SOB: he is yourself. Thus the essence of the game is your control. You must, to prevail at the highest level, be able to survive catastrophe with aplomb. There must be no past, no future, only the ever-becalmed, golden present as you reach through your brain-files to find the perfect stroke, so delicate, so easy, so fluid, and only your own doubts can clot you up.

That is Roy's essential flaw, and it should be said quite bluntly that he really doesn't deserve to win. Don Johnson, the nominal villainof the piece, for his smugness and his refusal to ruffle or let anything get under his skin, deserves it: That's what golf is.

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