“You’re a hero, Tommy Morris, to this town. But you’ll never be a gentleman.”
Golf has an aura of propriety. Even at the highest levels, players give themselves penalties for minor violations. It’s just the way the sport is played. The sport has something of an aristocratic background. After all, the Mecca of the game has the extravagant name “The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews”. But for all the gentlemanliness of the game, there is also an undercurrent of the more common elements of society. Tommy’s Honour is the story of a young working class man who seeks to make his fortune through the game of golf.
It’s actually the story of father and son. “Old” Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) is the head greenkeeper at St. Andrews. He is credited with starting the Open Championship, which he won four times. Yet that is very much a lower class job in that day. He makes clubs and balls for the more well to do players. He is really seen as something of a glorified caddie by the members of the club. They assume “Young” Tommy (Jack Lowden) will follow in his father’s footsteps. Sure enough, Tommy’s skills soon surpass his father on the course. But Tommy doesn’t “want to spend my days on my knees teeing up gentlemen who despise me, who think they’re better than me.”
Of course, golf was a bit different in the 19th Century. It was a pastime for the upper class. But for challenges, the clubs would back a player. The members would place the bets and collect the money, and give what they thought right to their representative player. So Tom and Tommy were often making money for their backers, but only a bit for themselves. Tommy, however, is arrogant and soon demands that he will decide how the money will be divided.
Classism is very pronounced throughout this film. It represents a time when the classes were fixed. If you were born into one class, there you would stay. (It’s really not much different that some of the attitudes many of us watched in Downton Abbey.) That message was passed on to Tommy in many ways. His father understood this as the way of the world. He’s told once that his “station in life was set before you were born.” There is even a good Scottish Calvinist sermon on predestination to drive home the point with a religious justification.
I found it interesting that publicity for this film uses terms like “Golf royalty” for Tom and Tommy. That is because of their place in the history of the game. Tom was the designer for various courses in Scotland and England. Both father and son won several championships. (Tommy was the first to win three in a row and retire the championship belt). They’re names may still show up on some lists of greatest all-time golfers. But “royalty” is very ironic considering how those who controlled the game looked down on them.
And it isn’t only about the upper class. When Tommy falls in love (and eventually marries) Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond) a girl with a checkered past, his own family wants to draw a line. They viewed her as beneath them socially.
Classism, of course, is just one of the ways we divide ourselves into “us and them” and assert our supposed superiority over other people. It fails to understand the basic equality that all people have before God. And it diminishes those who bear God’s image.
Photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions.