by Bill Gallagher
Making a golf movie that earns money by appealing to all those non-golfers in the
audience is the equivalent of knocking a four wood from 215 yards over sand and water
onto a tight green and into the cup.
It can be done. But it takes a hell of a shot. Ten years ago “Tin Cup” nailed that four
wood. It was funny, had a rough, almost unsentimental romanticism to it and gave us
some pretty good golf. It was the work of Ron Shelton, the director/writer who also gave
us “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and a seriously underrated cop movie called
“Dark Blue.” “Tin Cup” was number one at the box office for three weeks in a row in
1996. Kevin Costner was nominated for a Golden Globe. And Craig “the Walrus”
Stadler, walked away with my award for Best PGA Tour Player in a Supporting Role.
Shelton’s co-writer on “Tin Cup” was John Norville, a Portland native who played
golf for Cleveland High in the ’70s and then at Stanford where he also took creative
writing courses. Cardinal connections came through for Norville in the early ’80s when
he came back from teaching English in Italy and wanted to launch a screenwriting career.
One thing led to another the way they do in Hollywood, and after working with Kevin
Costner he hooked up with Ron Shelton on the project that became “Tin Cup.”
Now it’s time for another golf movie from the duo, and Norville’s ready to talk about
it when we meet on a rainy day in April in a booth at Bud Clark’s Goose Hollow Tavern.
And boy did we talk. For two hours plus Norville told stories, offered opinions and
divulged secrets. Oh, he also talked about his new project with Shelton called “Q
For the non-golfers reading this, “Q School” refers to the qualifying school for golfers
who want to play on the PGA Tour. If you’ve got the money and the handicap, you too
can go to Q-school. The final rounds are held in December in places where it’s warm. But
only the 35 golfers with the best scores (and ties for 35th place) will get to go on the
Tour. For the rest, well, there might be an opening for a server at The Olive Garden.
Norville is jazzed about the potential for “Q School.” “I want this to be the only golf
movie anyone remembers. I want it to be part of the culture.”
Ask him what “Q School” is about and Norville tells you about the characters, five
golfers in search of a pass to the PGA Tour and guaranteed riches, along with one
“There’s an 18-year-old girl trying to be the first woman to make the PGA Tour. There’s
a 23-year-old Latino guy whose mom is his caddy. There’s a club pro out of Muncie who
steals $5,000 from his house down payment to pay the entry fee for Q-school. His wife
finds out and kicks him out and cuts him off. There’s the first urban crossover player, Davari Lane, from Jefferson High. Yes, right here in Portland. And then there’s War
Horse Walker, who used to be on the Tour, and now he’s 47 and wiser and shrewder than
all these guys put together. He comes down in a luxury coach from Florida with an
Outdoor Life Network crew doing a documentary. The caddy is Scruff Stewart.
“In Act One they’re all arriving at the venue, PGA West near Palm Springs. Act Two is
the first five rounds of Q-school. Very little golf happens as the relationships play out and
points of view are challenged. The final act is round six, the final round. Everyone has
everything at stake. They’re all risking something, except maybe Megan, the 18-year-old
girl. War Horse is risking his belief that he has something to look forward to other than
getting old and being drunk.
“That’s it. That’s the story,” says Norville. “We want to tell a narrative that is not
necessarily about golf but uses golf to tell a story. Golf is the crucible. At what point do I
engage the audience and still give a nod to the sophisticated players? We try to get
enough golf right that golfers will say, ‘Yeah, this honors the proposition from where I
stand.’ And we’ll try to get all the women we can to come. In ‘Tin Cup’ we decided to go
for the women and hope the golfers would show up.”
Later on he admits, “We’re telling a big old shaggy-dog story.”
Because the script for “Q School” is a work in progress, this project still has quite a few
holes to play before it gets made. Ultimately it will come down to whether certain
“players” like the script.
“A couple of actors came to us with producers and they had a money guy and they said
they wanted to do a golf movie. We (Norville and Shelton) said we needed a minimum
amount of money just for our time and we need a piece of the movie. That was a good
proposition for them and for us. We got that and now we’re writing it, and they can walk
away if they don’t like it. After they pay us.”
Sorry if that comes off as just a bit clandestine, but Norville wouldn’t tell me the
identities of the actors who want a golf movie made. Speculation would be futile because
you can’t swing a dead cat in Hollywood without hitting an actor who thinks he could be
the next Ben Hogan. Kevin Costner is the obvious guess for being involved and playing
War Horse Walker, but after that, who knows. And where will the producers find an 18-
year-old girl who can act and golf well enough to be believable as a white Michelle Wie?
There’s a great line about the movie business from screenwriter William Goldman
(“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), “Nobody knows anything.” Keeping that in
mind, “Q School” sounds like as sure a thing as Tiger Woods not blowing a lead in a
major. But what do I know?
Shelton has proven he can make a sports movie that has appeal beyond that of the typical
sports movie, i.e. boys and men aged 14-104. Before “Tin Cup” there was “Bull
Durham,” which Norville considers the greatest sports movie ever made. “‘Bull Durham’ achieves what it purports to achieve and it achieves it in spades,” says
Norville. “It lets everybody understand what it’s like to be in baseball when you love
your sport and you’re not quite good enough to make it, and some shithead who has no
claim on all the triumphs goes right by you and your job is to prepare him the best you
can along the way.”
That would be Crash Davis (Costner) mentoring /handling/taming Ebby Calvin “Nuke”
LaLoosh (Tim Robbins).
“There’s an unsentimental appreciation of the reality of sports. Bull Durham understands
the way that life works. The shithead who is gifted and doesn’t deserve it goes shooting
by you and you spend your whole life toiling in obscurity trying to get some triumph only
you get … like your home run thing in the minors,” he says.
Davis was trying to set the record for most home runs in the minors — a dubious
distinction, since what self-respecting player wants to be in the minors long enough to
win that title? Then there’s the struggle to win Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) away from
“And the best you can hope for — that maybe she’ll be waiting for you at the end of the
day — you can’t even count on because the other guy’s gonna get all the play along the
way,” Norville concludes.
Life can suck. Shelton’s view of the eternal struggle matches Norville’s disdain for
sentimentality. Norville admires what he calls Shelton’s “humor and humanity.” That’s
why they both like complex characters.
“Who are our characters? How do we organize them in opposition so as to reveal
journeys? How can we keep telling their stories in new ways that surprise the audience?
Surprise me and delight me,” Norville says. “I want to be goosed! The way we work it is,
I plow the field, and Ron works it behind me. Right now is a very heady time. A fun kind
of heady time because you’re there and you’re not guessing. It’s so much fun to be
working with someone you trust.”
It will be interesting to see what comes of “Q School.” Only a fool would post odds on
whether it’s ever made. But I tell you what, I’ll keep you updated on the fate of what
sounds like a “four wood to the green” of a movie.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - March 2007