Thursday, April 29, 2004

Ness makes sure golf movie gets the right shots

Paul Daugherty

Fresh off playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, actor Jim Caviezel plays the title role in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. In Georgia, the switch from Christ to Jones is seen as a natural progression.

As a golfer, Caviezel is a great actor. He signed up for a movie about a legendary golfer, even though he'd never played golf. Caviezel didn't know a 3-wood from Hollywood. Plus, he's left-handed.

Teaching a left-handed novice how to play right-handed, and to swing like Bobby Jones, is like teaching John Daly how to drink with one fist. "It looked like an impossible mission," said Tom Ness.

Ness is a teaching professional outside Atlanta. Jones was golf's greatest amateur, winner of the Grand Slam and co-founder of the Masters tournament and Augusta National Golf Club. Caviezel was the Son of God who couldn't hit a 5-iron.

Since most of the movie's golf scenes were filmed in and around Atlanta, and Ness has been giving lessons to hackers for close to 30 years, the movie people decided Ness would be up for the job of coaching Caviezel. They gave him two weeks.

"You see all these extras here?" Caviezel snorted to Ness after their first day together. "They're all country clubbers. They all play golf. None of them thinks I should have this part."

They had a point. Ness relayed this anecdote:

"At the end of the first day of shooting, they set up a shot out of a greenside bunker, in a rainstorm. They said we only had two takes to get it right." Any more and all that water would mess up Caviezel's hair, a far greater tragedy than having to make a sand save.

"Jim says to me, 'How do you hit a bunker shot?' " Ness recalled.

Ness spent a few minutes offering the finer points of sand play. Caviezel stepped into the sand, cameras rolling, extras frowning, water threatening to wreck his hair, and hit a great shot. Everyone cheered. Caviezel was quite pleased with himself.

"That's no good," Ness said.

"What?" Caviezel said.

"You grounded your club."

"What's that mean?" Caviezel asked.

Caviezel had watched old newsreels of Jones, who in 1931 and '32 made 18 instructional movie shorts for Warner Brothers. Caviezel had some of the moves. Besides, as Caviezel told Ness, "People don't understand what acting is."

In other words, that's why it's called ... acting. If you want perfect realism in your Bobby Jones movie, hire Ernie Els and hope he doesn't trip over the furniture.

Ness spent more time making Caviezel look like a legitimate player than worrying about how much his swing resembled Jones'. If you've seen Matt Damon try to be a pro golfer in The Legend of Bagger Vance, you know Ness was on the right path. Damon swung like a rusty gate. If he's a golfer, I'm Jack Nicholson.

Ness also worked on Caviezel's mannerisms: His preshot routine ("What's that?" Caviezel wondered, clueless again), his reaching for a club while eyeing his target, even how he flicked his cigarette away as he prepared to hit. Caviezel bent down and placed the butt gently on the ground beside him. Nobody does that, let alone famous golfers.

The magic of film helped. Ness said the crew had "ball cannons" that made sure the tee shots on celluloid were straight, even as they power-faded in real life.

Eventually, Caviezel resembled a golfer. "If he worked at it, he could get to a 10-handicap pretty quick," Ness said. Ness admired Caviezel's child-like ability to "ignore the outcome" of a shot and "produce the motion I was teaching him" instead.

"Your mind has to be on the process, not the outcome," Ness said.

Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius opens nationally Friday. If you see Jim Caviezel, be Fore!warned: Give the man lots of room.


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