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The Legend of Bagger Vance

Bagger Vance title card

Year - 2000
Studio - Dreamworks, Twentieth Century Fox
Stars - Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Bruce McGill, Joel Gretsch, J. Michael Moncrief, Lane Smith
Director - Robert Redford
Writing Credits - Steven Pressfield (novel), Jeremy Leven (screenplay)
Music - Rachel Portman

Synopsis

As a young man, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) is one of the most promising golfers in the country. He leaves his Savannah, Georgia, home and his girlfriend, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), to join the World War I fighting in Europe, where he is a hero, but is traumatized by the carnage. When he returns home, he turns to the bottle, and ignores Adele and golf.

Adele's father has built a luxury Savannah golf and country club but, when the Great Depression hits, mounting debts cause him to commit suicide. Local businessmen attempt to convince Adele to sell them the property for a fraction of its value, but she impulsively announces that her country club will be sponsoring an exhibition match between golfing greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

The city elders agree to support the plan only if a local golfer is included in the contest. A young boy and golfing enthusiast, Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) insists that he can get Junuh to participate. He goes to his house, but the reclusive Junuh adamantly refuses, saying that he has "lost his swing." Adele swallows her pride and also attempts, without success, to convince Junuh to enter. After she leaves, however, Junuh starts hitting some balls in his yard when, over the horizon, a man appears and introduces himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith). He offers to caddy for Junuh for "five dollars guaranteed."

Legend of Bagger Vance poster

Junuh sees that the Savannah residents, so demoralized by the Depression, would experience great pride in seeing him take part in the exhibition, so he agrees to join. As he prepares, Bagger offers guidance with his game, not in technique but in his mental attitude about it. As Junuh struggles with his rusty skills, Bagger remains confident and serene.

Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) arrive in Savannah to great fanfare, and the three-day, 54 hole match gets under way, to the considerable enthusiasm of the crowd. However, Junuh, with Bagger and Hardy caddying for him, commits many errors and, at the end of the first day of play, he is 12 strokes behind Jones and Hagen.

At the start of the next day's competition, Bagger suggests to Junuh that he may as well give up, but, despite his humiliation, he knows he must continue. Pleased with his attitude, Bagger tells Junuh to concentrate, not on winning, but on "playing." He counsels him, in the manner of a Zen master, to put everything extraneous out of his mind, and to focus only on the goal. Junuh begins to understand, and his game improves greatly. At the end of the second day, he is only four strokes down. That evening, he and Adele realize they are still in love with each other.

On the third and final day of the exhibition, Junuh's game continues to improve, and he pulls even with Jones and Hagen. But, at the 18th hole, when he brushes aside a twig near his ball, the ball moves. Although no one but Bagger and Hardy saw it happen, he penalizes himself a stroke, surprising the match officials as well as Jones and Hagen. On the green, as he prepares to play out the hole, Bagger tells him that it is time for him to leave. Junuh pleads for him to stay until the match is completed, but Bagger says Junuh no longer needs him, and he walks off into the distance. Jones and Hagen fail to make their long putts, and Junuh, in a state of keen mental clarity, sinks a long putt for the match win.

The "legend of Bagger Vance" is narrated by an uncredited Jack Lemmon, playing the Hardy Greaves character as an old man. In a framing story, he suffers a heart attack while golfing at the beginning of the story. At the film's conclusion, he gets up off the ground, and sees the silhouette of Bagger Vance waving to him from the horizon.

Show Spoilers

The Legend of Bagger Vance, like Field of Dreams, offers a sports as metaphor for life theme, with the Bagger Vance character providing a sort of "guardian angel" presence. I was reminded of my own attempts to improve my tennis game by reading Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis, which offered the excellent advice to not just keep your eye on the ball, but keep your eyes on the seams of the ball, something only possible through focused concentration. The film was suggested for this site by Jordan Benedict.