Movies that have golfers off to a tee

Mike Leigh's new film features a sequence on a course, and Ken Loach's also follows its characters on the fairway. Geoffrey Macnab drives at why golf is so attractive to directors

Macnab turns up in London dressed in full Highland regalia (kilt, bonnet, sporran) and with his golf clubs on his shoulder. He is in town to stay with his cousin somewhere in suburbia. As soon as he arrives in the cousin's drawing room, Macnab starts some informal golf practice on the cousin's carpet. After a couple of ungainly swings, the overhead light is broken, the curtains are down and the table smashed. Then the golf ball scoots through a hole in the plaster. Macnab goes after it, losing his kilt in the process. Emerging out of the plaster, he terrifies the maid next door and is carted off in a wheelbarrow by a passing policeman.

Macnab's Visit to London (1905), directed by and starring British film pioneer, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, has a claim as one of the very first films ever to deal with the game of golf.

Film-makers have returned to golf again and again, and for very different reasons. Cinema has an ambiguous relationship with a sport that some see as class-ridden and chauvinistic. Golf has provided the backcloth for both inspirational dramas and knockabout comedies, for conspiracy thrillers and for ghost stories alike.

Golf features in some unexpected places too. You don't think of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach as types to be seen on their days off in their Pringle sweaters. However, both Leigh and Loach have made new films which have scenes set on golf courses. In Leigh's Another Year, there is a tragi-comic sequence set on a suburban golf course. Ken (Peter Wight), who is in London visiting old friends Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), is overweight, middle-aged and desperate. He works in a dead-end office job in Hull. His life hasn't turned out the way he wanted and he drinks heavily. Even a round with Tom and a couple of others turns into a marathon ordeal that leaves him sweating and exhausted. The scene clearly wasn't included because Leigh was a golf fanatic. "I do not play golf... nor am I ever likely to," he told off one interviewer in 2005.

One guesses that Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty are not golf lovers either. Loach's new film Route Irish is a revenge thriller looking at dark deeds perpetrated by western security contractors in Iraq. Back home in Liverpool, it is noticeable that golf is the game of choice for the most violent and sinister characters. Austrian director Michael Haneke is another film-maker who doesn't associate golf with PG Wodehouse-like larkery. In Funny Games (1997), the sadistic young men who terrorise the bourgeois family use golf clubs as weapons.

Golf is all about etiquette and rules. That's why some film-makers relish bringing chaos and disorder onto the course. Even more destructive than Macnab on his trip to London is WC Fields in The Golf Specialist (1930). Fields' character, J Effingham Bellwether, is a certified lunatic incapable of teeing off. Whenever he addresses the ball, some new distraction puts him off.

For film-makers who want to depict frustration and failure – the utter impossibility of ever achieving any of your aims in life – golf can be a useful metaphor. There's another WC Fields short, The Dentist (1932), in which he grows so exasperated at a water hazard on a golf course that he eventually throws his clubs into the water and then his caddy as well.

This is the same predicament that confronts Kevin Costner at the end of Ron Shelton's enjoyably cheesy Tin Cup (1996). Costner plays a hard-drinking, over-the-hill golfer who somehow gets a final chance at glory in the US Open. Desperate to impress psychologist Rene Russo, he plays brilliantly, is leading in the final round, but then the water hazard looms in front of him. He can play safe or go for glory. Costner's character is a Rocky with a driver in his hands instead of boxing gloves on them. Thankfully, Shelton, a former minor league baseball player, is more interested in exploring the psychology of sports stars down on their luck than on telling grand triumphal narratives. There is an irony and raw humour in Tin Cup that isn't found, for example, in Robert Redford's mystical and earnest The Legend of Bagger Vance. Golf doesn't just stand for frustration and failure.

If you want to understand the essence of Katharine Hepburn's appeal, just watch her in George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952). She was 45 when she played the role of Pat Pemberton, the Ivy League-type sporting heroine with an ability to wallop golf balls vast distances. The golf sequences capture perfectly both her graceful athleticism and her irrepressibility and defiance in a stuffy, male-dominated world.

British comedian Sid Field included his celebrated golfing sketch in the movie London Town (1946), a hugely expensive musical that almost bankrupted the Rank Organisation. The sketch revolves around the misunderstandings between a supercilious golfer (Jerry Desmonde) and his very camp opponent (Field), who knows neither the rules nor the lingo of the golf course. This, again, is a skit about golf in which no golf is played. The humour comes from sending up the strange rituals associated with the game.

In conspiracy thrillers, businessmen and spies play golf. If there's a crooked deal to be done, the golf course is the place to hatch it. When the boss is on his lunch hour, he is bound to be found putting balls into a cup. If two rivals want to size themselves up, they can do so over a few ferociously competitive holes. Witness James Bond (Sean Connery) and Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) tussling on the fairways in Goldfinger (1964). When Goldfinger loses his ball, a replacement pops out of his caddy Oddjob's trousers. Bond switches the balls, thereby ensuring that Goldfinger loses on the 18th green on a technicality. The Brit Bond exposes the rich but parvenu foreigner as a cheat... although Bond himself is happily flaunting the rules.

Golf can also stand for Zen-like serenity. In Lost In Translation (2003), one moment of peace that Bill Murray's bored, jet-lagged character enjoys is when he hits a perfect golf shot.

Ealing Studios' portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) is one of the few instances in which golf has formed the backdrop for a ghost story. The "Golfing Story" segment is about two friends (played by staunch, eccentric Brits Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) who play golf constantly. A woman comes between them. One golfer plays a dastardly trick which leads to the other committing suicide. His friend then haunts him on his wedding night.

On the whole, though, golf has been used in films for comic purposes. Golf-themed movies have been associated with some very base humour. Perhaps the nadir is a sequence in Harold Ramis's Caddyshack (1980) which isn't set on the golf course at all. This comes when a chocolate bar floating in a swimming pool is mistaken for faeces.

Comedians from Adam Sandler ( Happy Gilmore) to Jerry Lewis ( The Caddy) have ventured out on to the fairways with varying results. The world of golf is so hierarchical and class-conscious that it makes a natural backdrop for yarns about likeable and goofy outsiders. The hushed tones and mood of forced solemnity found at the stuffiest golf clubs make it all the funnier in films when comedians like Rodney Dangerfield or Chevy Chase behave outrageously. There is something innately comic about grown men (outside Hepburn, there have been few female golfers in movies) pursuing tiny balls over vast expanses of grass and undergrowth. Doug Liman's Swingers (1996) boasts a memorable scene shot at the Los Feliz Municipal Golf Course in Los Angeles in which the young dudes around town play golf with engaging awfulness. Just because they're so bad at the game doesn't mean they take it any the less seriously.

However, it's hard to think of golf-themed movies that have really caught the public's imagination apart from the knockabout comedies. Anything else seems out of bounds at the box-office. That's why, more than a century after Macnab's Visit to London in 1905, and many years after WC Fields' heyday, goofiness still rules at tee-off time. There is little sign that golf films of the future will be any less anarchic than so many of their predecessors.

'Another Year' opens on 5 November

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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