Driving Lessons

Lloyd and Noah Graff are in California goofing off this week. This is a favorite column from the magazine archives.

By: Lloyd Graff

I’ve watched the golf movie Tin Cup a dozen times, and every time I view it I love it more. Kevin Costner plays Roy McAvoy, a broken-down golf pro relegated to giving lessons at a driving range in armadillo-infested Salome, Texas.

McAvoy has every shot in the game. He can shoot par using only a seven iron, but his confidence is shot and his life and his game are in shambles. Then Rene Russo comes to town. She plays a psychologist. She is also dating Costner’s nemesis Don Johnson, a prominent tour player who is as obnoxious as he is successful.

Costner falls painfully in love with Russo, who he meets when she is trying to learn how to play golf. He commits to turning his life around by attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open.

Naturally, he does pass the test and goes on to play in the ultimate tournament with his caddie Cheech Marin and Russo as his sports shrink and semi-girlfriend.

The greatness of the movie is in the ending scenes when Costner rebounds from a terrible first round to challenge for the championship. The dramatic setup for the movie is the difficult par 5 18th hole which is surrounded by water. The rational play is to lay up on the second shot for a fairly easy par and possible birdie. But Costner, the ultimate golf romantic or idiot, attempts to hit a 240-yard three wood in each of the first three rounds, failing each time.

The climax of the movie occurs when Costner attempts the virtually impossible shot in the last round when a par will get him to a playoff. He hits a virtually perfect shot, only to see it trickle over the green into the water hazard. Costner then plays the next ball from the same spot and again knocks it into the water. He proceeds to play Don Quixote on the next six shots until he is down to the last ball in his bag. If he misses the green he is disqualified and loses the chance to finish in the top 15 and qualify for other major tour events.

The commentators and fans are beside themselves with anguish as they see Costner selfdestruct in his desperate quest for the perfect shot. On his last attempt he not only rolls it on to the green, but watches it fall in the cup.

He loses the tournament but wins the girl with his heroic choice.

The greatness of the movie is in how it plays off the desire for success and winning against the purity of going for perfection and defying the golf gods. We revel in Costner’s romantic lunacy, but we hate him for throwing away his chance of a lifetime to win the Open.

Costner’s moment of clarity comes after his elation in killing the dragon and sinking the miracle shot. He realizes he has just blown the U.S. Open because of his grandiosity and ego. But then Rene Russo tells him that the shot will immortalize him, and she loves him for it. This is the moment that makes this movie worth watching again and again and again for me – the tension between going for broke and playing to win. I saw Phil Mickelson go for it all in the 2006 Open and blow the tournament, but I love him for the effort. The golf philosophers have pilloried him for his brazen stupidity. He banished himself from the tour for many weeks trying to recover from the shame of trying the amazing shot and failing to hit it.

In business most of us play it safe. We lay up. We are prudent stewards of assets. The joy of watching Tin Cup for the tenth time is being thrilled by the purity of Roy McAvoy’s quest for perfection and fulfillment – and wishing they were ours for the grasping.

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