Early in the movie “Tommy’s Honour,” Alexander Boothby, captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, marches around Old Tom Morris’ golf shop as if he owns it, issuing orders to the proprietor. Before leaving, Boothby, played oh-so-haughtily by Sam Neill, asks Young Tom Morris to caddie for him. Young Tom demurs, infuriating his father.
After Neill leaves, Old Tom reprimands his son.
“That man is the captain of the club,” he says. “How could you insult him?”
“Why do you let him talk to you like that, Dad?” Tommy responds.
“Because he has every right to,” Old Tom replies. “I work for him and the other gentlemen.”
One of the many things to admire about “Tommy’s Honour,” which opened in U.S. theaters April 14, is that it brings to life the first family of golf. For that, we have Kevin Cook to thank.
It was Cook’s marvelous 2007 novel of the same title that explored the story of the Morris clan with texture and detail that previously was lost to history. No longer were the Morrises mere caricatures from the mid-19th century; they were a family with a compelling story to share, regardless of their Open Championships and the impact on golf equipment and course design.
The movie hews closely to the book – not surprising given the screenplay was written by Cook and his wife, Pamela Marin. (He insists she was the lead writer on the script.)
Young Tom was a swashbuckler
At the heart of the story is the sometimes-complicated relationship between father and son.
Old Tom’s stature in golf was not reflected in the way he carried himself. He was a cautious, humble man resigned to being a servant, often caddying for club members, doing whatever was necessary to create a better life for his wife and children.
Young Tom was more of a swashbuckler, on course and off. He attacked every pin, took on every challenger and, to his parents’ regret, fell in love and married a woman with a checkered past. The devout Old Tom and his wife, Nancy, disapproved of Young Tom’s marriage to Meg Drinnen because of her “bastard child,” but Nancy ultimately comes to her daughter-in-law’s defense.
One of the revelations in “Tommy’s Honour” is Jack Lowden, the young Scottish actor who threw himself into the title role. Amid an unusually strong cast for an independent production, Lowden owns every scene in which he appears. Others apparently have noticed; his credits include a half dozen other projects since wrapping production of “Tommy’s Honour.”
Neither Lowden nor Peter Mullan, the revered Scottish actor cast as Old Tom, played golf before these roles, but they pulled off the on-course scenes well enough to keep their golf doubles on the sidelines. No doubt the free-flowing swings of that era were easier to replicate than the more mechanical modern swings.
The original pro golfer
Tommy won four consecutive Opens by age 21 and essentially created the job of professional golfer, but perhaps his biggest job was carrying Old Tom and his balky putter in money games that helped pay the family’s bills.
This inevitably led to tensions between the father and son, most painfully when Old Tom learns of a family tragedy during a match at Musselburgh, but doesn’t share the information with Tommy.
That leads to one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, when Tommy confronts his Old Tom over his deceit: “Golf is your god, dad, it’s not mine.”
Despite their impact on the game and history, there is an overriding sense of sadness about the Morris’ saga. It’s evident from the outset when, in a striking visual, Old Tom emerges from the sea after his morning dip and returns, alone, to his empty home, having lived out every parent’s nightmare: He had outlived Nancy and his five children.