Greatest Game way off course

Other voices

Golf

October 04, 2005|By CHARLES D. BURGESS

The game of golf seems to be a popular, reoccurring theme for Hollywood movie makers over the years, whether as part of a drama or comedy, or simply as the background setting in dozens of films.

Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore quickly come to mind as entertaining comedic golf films; Tin Cup was an entertaining underdog story; and nearly every movie made by the golf-loving Farrelly Brothers contains a few golf scenes. The Legend of Bagger Vance and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius represent recent more serious, dramatic portrayals of a fictional and a genuine golfing marvel, respectively.

Now the Walt Disney Studios have entered the fray with last week's release of The Greatest Game Ever Played, which details the inspiring story of America's first golf hero, Francis Ouimet, and his incredible victory in the 1913 U.S. Open. It is a wonderfully entertaining film, but its claim of being a "true story" in the opening credits is actually quite far from the truth - the more modest claim on the preview trailers of it being "based on a true story" is slightly more accurate, but still very misleading.

Imagine presenting the story of Helen Keller without mentioning her devoted teacher Ann Sullivan. Picture the movie Miracle (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic team) without mentioning coach Herb Brooks, or Rocky without his beleaguered trainer Mickey. That, unfortunately, is exactly what happens in The Greatest Game.

The story of Francis Ouimet cannot be told without including the crucial role of his mentor and lifelong friend Charles "Chay" Burgess.

At this point, I have to offer a disclaimer. I have a vested interest in presenting the true story of Ouimet - the one that includes the equally dramatic and interesting story of his unsung teacher Chay Burgess. Chay Burgess was my great-grandfather, and I am the author of a book titled Golf Links - Chay Burgess, Francis Ouimet, and The Bringing of Golf to America (Rounder Books, Cambridge, Mass.).

The book, based upon my personal knowledge of the relationship between Chay and Francis and supported by years of research, provides a broad portrayal of Ouimet, the early Scottish-born golf pros like Chay, and the evolution of golf in America during the first three decades of the last century.

During his lifetime, Ouimet never failed to acknowledge the important role that Burgess played in his development. According to Ouimet, Chay Burgess, " ... taught me whatever I know about the game." Because the movie omits the crucial role of Burgess in Ouimet's success, the entire film and its claim to truth are fundamentally flawed. Many critical scenes, when they aren't made up entirely, are at best far-flung and fictionalized versions of the actual events because of the absence of Burgess'influence on Ouimet.

One of the most glaring diversions has Ouimet quitting the game for several years before the 1913 Open because of an agreement with his father (who, in the film and reality, was strongly opposed to his son's foray into a "gentleman's game").

The film portrays Francis getting a loan of $50 from his father (not true) to enter the 1910 National Amateur after developing his game on his own (again, false) as a caddie. He promises his father that if he fails to qualify, he will quit playing golf and get a job. In the film, Ouimet just misses qualifying and, keeping his promise, quits the game and goes to work in a sporting goods store.

The film would have us believe that three years later, after not picking up a club in all that time, he was invited into the 1913 Open over any other local amateurs, takes a quick lesson from the professional at The Country Club and was able to play the game better than the world's greatest golfers.

That portrayal is a disservice to the legacy and character of Ouimet and belies his true nature. In fact, Ouimet was a most dedicated student of the game. He worked tirelessly at improving his game under the tutelage of Burgess, playing together every Sunday afternoon (Chay's only day off) during the years between 1910 and 1913 preparing Francis for his long-held dream - a national championship. There was no three-year retirement from golf.

Ouimet later said: "Whatever progress I have made in golf I owe to [Chay] Burgess. In 1910 and 1911, I played with him often - took lessons - and had the satisfaction of seeing my scores drop from around 85 to the low 70s. I would give anything to have those Sunday afternoon matches over once more because they represent the red-letter days in my life."

Too bad Hollywood didn't think that this aspect of the Ouimet story was very important. Without Burgess, Ouimet might have become a champion, but not when he did or in the way that he did. The story of America's first golf hero was incredibly amazing as it actually occurred. It need not be novelized or adulterated with a made-up love interest, an altered account of the last round and playoff (riddled with inaccurate scores and demeaning portrayals of some truly noble early American golfers), and dozens of other deviations from the true story.

Purely on its own merits, The Greatest Game Ever Played is an engaging story of a dark-horse candidate triumphing over his more seasoned rivals. But its claims to historical accuracy are severely undermined by omissions and inaccuracies.

Chuck D. Burgess is author of Golf Links - Chay Burgess, Francis Ouimet, and The Bringing of Golf to America.

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