The Legend of Bagger Vance is on its surface perhaps a silly story about sports and competition, but carries some deeper meanings as well. In this tale of camaraderie and redemption can be found a parable for anyone who finds themselves cast in the role of an underdog in this life. Matt Damon stars as the down on his luck former golfer, somewhat lost in a PTSD haze and not even sure what’s worth fighting for anymore. It’s not until he finds himself face to face with his cherished Charlize Theron that he starts to question things a little bit. With the help of Will Smith and a little folksy wisdom on the greens Matt may find out once and for all whether he really is in way over his head. And there’s a distinct chance that he is.
The sport of golf is a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some it’s just a drinking contest, after all a well lubricated swing is sure to flow a little looser (Matt had no shortage of these kinds of rounds early in the movie, perhaps was for the best that he finally chose to re-evaluate that part of his game, may have Charlize to thank for that come to think of it). For others it deserves a little more reverence, as there may be spiritual elements to the game as the battle against randomness is fought over time for reproducibility through repetition and intention, a contest always first and foremost against one’s self, with only the help of a few friendly irons, drivers, and at times perhaps a little GPU to speed up gameplay.
The movie really gets into the thick of things when Matt finds himself cast in the Kaggle invitational tournament, featuring no shortage of elite athletes with plenty of trophy’s already under their belt. What he’s doing in this field, having never really competed on such a level, well is anybody’s guess. Does he have something to prove? Perhaps. Does he stand a bat’s chance in hell? Well, in short, no.
I mean let’s just take a second to size up his competition. First we’ve got Bobby Jones, a lawyer and engineer, winner of 7 majors in 8 years (13 if you count his amateur championships (!)), who promptly retired from golf after winning the grand slam of four majors in a year, a feat that hasn’t been duplicated to this day (I mean unless you count the Tiger slam which I do but I digress). Sort of the equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld ending his sitcom while still the most watched show on television. I mean who does that?
Next on the tee is Walter Hagen, who may not have been an actual millionaire, but he certainly knew how to live like one. Hagen was the first professional golfer, a man that took charm and gamesmanship into the realm of sponsorships and paid exhibitions — sort of the equivalent of building a company on top of open source code if you ask me.
Finally the foursome is rounded out by Iron Byron, not a man but a machine. With an ultra precise and repeatable swing, the only way this auto-golfer can even come close to mis-hit is by some fluke chance of a bad randomness seeding (I tend to just stick with the number 42). How could Matt possibly hope to compete with the likes of Iron Byron? Keep in mind he’s writing all of this for Charlize after all, perhaps gives him a little extra motivation.
I mean the whole obstacle here is not just the course and the competition, good and bad breaks all, but the reality of the circumstance. Matt has found his golf swing with a little bit of writers block as of late. I mean like serious blockage. And golf is one of those sports that if you don’t keep playing, keep visiting the driving range, keep chipping and putting, well you begin to lose your repeatable swing. And golf becomes a struggle against one’s self. And the only real way out as far as I can tell is to have something on the line. You need some soul in the game.
Consider that the game of golf is like exploring some state space of potential rounds. With every swing we slightly narrow the range of state-space we have left to explore in our round. And as we approach the 18th hole, that range of outcomes starts to diminish, as we start to have a clearer idea of the future, it may be worth pausing to reflect on the journey. That wonderful pair of birdies when we first met, the Ravel concert and the camping trip and the art gallery and those few times we got our swings lined up straight. Those holes where we got caught in the rough, or how somehow it’s amazing no matter what hole you were playing you always ended up next to the water — a lake, an ocean, a river, I don’t know how you did it. And your adorable little beach cruiser bicycle that you always took with you. Talking about Charlize that is sorry I digress.
And as Matt and Charlize approach the 18th hole, they get ready to say their goodbyes from the clubhouse, and Matt realizes how much he’s cherished having Charlize to be there for him. I mean let’s face it Will was a decent caddy and all, but Charlize is the real reason that he found his golf swing again. And for that he will be eternally grateful. And as the credits start to roll, as the headlights start to dim, (spoiler alert), Matt looks Charlize in the eyes and quietly whispers “i’ll always have a special place in my heart for you.”
For more: From the Diaries of John Henry
Books that were referenced here or otherwise inspired this post:
Five Lessons — Ben Hogan
(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)