Tin Cup is one of those rare romantic comedies that can get away with being called a “sports film,” which is why it transcends the rom-com genre and is just a great well-balanced movie that teaches you about the mental hurdles of relationships and golf.
Ok, so maybe it doesn’t teach you all of that, but it does give you glimpses of the lessons, both for relationships and golf.
And as you’ll find out over the next 18 holes, the writing strikes well, hitting fairways and greens with regularity.
The plot is straightforward Rom-com. Boy meets Girl, in this case, it’s Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy (Kevin Costner) meets Molly (Rene Russo). Molly just so happens to be in a relationship with Roy’s old college teammate and rival David Simms (Don Johnson). And with the help of his caddie, Romeo (Cheech Marin), Roy will win the “most democratic” tournament in golf – the U.S. Open – to win Molly away from Simms.
Now, Roy isn’t just some random amateur golfer. He was good back in college, has since been running his own driving range, and he has some game. He even wins a round by playing with a rake, a hoe, a baseball bat, a pool cue, and other assorted garden tools.
Roy also makes golf look cool, by playing with headphones during the regional qualifier, although this is illegal according to the USGA, we should let it slide since this is Hollywood fiction.
The film, golf-wise, is based upon Chip Beck. Beck laid up at the 1993 Masters, at which point, writer and director Ron Shelton called up co-writer John Norville and said: “That’s the key to our guy: He won’t lay up!”
Well, as Roy says; “Well, what the hell? You ride her until she bucks you or don’t ride at all.”
And lastly, before we take to the links, a good caddy is required. You cannot get any better than Cheech Marin as Romeo. Seriously, he may not have all the great lines, those mostly come from Costner’s Roy, but he plays such an important role, that it’s worth noting his comedic timing and sense of acting to the drama is as close to perfection as you could get.
With our warmup complete, let’s tee off!
Hole 1: The First Thing (Par 4)
“First thing you must learn is this game ain’t about hitting some little white ball in some yonder hole. It’s about inner demons, self-doubt, human frailty and overcoming that shit.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
This is the first lesson. You can’t be in your head when playing golf. There is a Zen to the game that many will never master. Roy, throughout this film ebbs and flows within his inner battle. And his mental struggle is a much harder game than any sand trap, water hazard, or shanked drive could ever be.
Hole 2: Highly Technical Golf Terms (Par 5)
“‘F*ck.’ ‘Shit.’ These are highly technical golf terms and you’re using them on your first lesson. This is promising.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
Language is an important part of any game. But you must remember that excelling at understanding the language of the game is separate from understanding the game. No matter how good you get at speaking the game, it’s what you do with the ball that counts most.
Hole 3: Poetry (Par 4)
“Well, I tend to think of the golf swing as a poem. The critical opening phrase of this poem will always be the grip. Which the hands unite to form a single unit by the simple overlap of the little finger. Lowly and slowly the clubhead is led back. Pulled into position not by the hands, but by the body which turns away from the target shifting weight to the right side without shifting balance. Tempo is everything; perfection unobtainable as the body coils down at the top of the swing. There’s a slight hesitation. A little nod to the gods.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
“A nod to the gods?” – Dr. Molly Griswold
“Yeah, to the gods. That he is fallible. That perfection is unobtainable. And now the weight begins shifting back to the left pulled by the powers inside the earth. It’s alive, this swing! A living sculpture and down through contact, always down, striking the ball crisply, with character. A tuning fork goes off in your heart and your balls. Such a pure feeling is the well-struck golf shot. Now the follow through to finish. Always on line. The reverse C of the Golden Bear! The steel workers’ power and brawn of Carl Sandburg’s. Arnold Palmer! End the unfinished symphony of Roy McAvoy.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
While Roy’s secondary suggestion behind the poetry of his swing to Molly is to “Grip it and rip it,” which appears to be the preferred amatuer approach, it is not wholly effective, and we must all attempt to find our own poetry for the motion of our swing. Of course, this is a movie and Peter Kostis and Gary McCord were brought in as technical advisors to assist Costner and Johnson with their swings. Authenticity is important, in sports films, and in golf, especially a golf movie, an authentic swing is paramount.
That wasn’t the only piece of authenticity within the film. The USGA set up all of the courses used in the movie. An authentic swing on an authentic course.
Hole 4: Defining Moments (Par 3)
“When a defining moment comes along you define the moment or the moment defines you.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
Roy may have said this aloud to Romeo, his caddy, but he was also saying it to himself. This is one of the most transcendent quotes from the movie that has a larger significance to each of us in any given moment in our lives. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a simple decision to define you. And like the game of golf, handling that moment and making the right decision is more mental than physical.
Hole 5: Greatness (Par 4)
Roy: Greatness courts failure, Romeo.
Romeo: You may be right boss, but you know what? Sometimes par is good enough to win.
Perhaps the hardest lesson of all to learn, is one that Roy has issues with more often than not. The idea that greatness and par are separate from each other is nominal at the best of times. Despite Roy’s lack of resolve to settle for par, sometimes par is enough to win, as Romeo later points out. The secondary lesson here is that sometimes you should listen to your Caddy! Roy doesn’t always have that lesson down either.
Hole 6: Timing (Par 3)
“All right. A former paramour once ascribed my fluid sense of time to being born under the sign of Pisces. Something about floating through the universe.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
Timing is everything, in golf as in life. And while in this film, timing is tweaked to maximize the impact and drama of the story, timing still exists as a paramount fixture within the lives and golf games of the characters and ourselves.
Hole 7: A Caddy’s Job (Par 5)
Roy: Listen, swami, your job is to teach me patience and humility, not to advise me on my love life.
Romeo: You can’t ask advice about the woman you’re trying to hose from the woman you’re trying to hose!
This movie is easy enough to define. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Boy attempts to win her heart. But it isn’t without its hurdles, otherwise, there wouldn’t be a movie to be seen at all. This is a relationship comedy based around the game of golf. Not the other way around, and to see it any other way is to discredit the writing. I say relationship and not romantic because it’s about Roy & Molly and Roy & Romeo. Both vastly different relationships, that share similar tendencies within Roy as the common thread based on his intuition versus his trust.
Hole 8: A Beautiful Swing (Par 4)
Molly: You’ve got a beautiful swing
Roy: I’m a beautiful guy.
This is a movie! Of course, Roy is a beautiful guy, who has a beautiful swing! He’s Kevin Costner! Most men could hope for only one of those things, and many would easily take the beautiful swing hands down!
Hole 9: Obnoxious, Arrogant, and Attractive (Par 4)
Molly: I find him mildly attractive when he’s obnoxious and arrogant like this —
Romeo: Good. ‘Cause it’s his best side…
Molly: Is this normal behavior for him?
Earl: The word ‘normal’ and him don’t collide in the same sentence too often.
While your powers of observation of your current paramour can deceive you, their friends will often give you insight into who that person really is. Earl and Romeo have known Roy a lot longer than Molly, and they know him better. But the most true or false, depending on your perception, part of this film, maybe Molly with the quote above. As a personal case study, I’ve been arrogant and mildly obnoxious most of my life, but women don’t usually find that “mildly attractive” to say the least. Well, at least in Hollywood fiction, those are “attractive” qualities.
Hole 10: The 7 Iron (Par 5)
“Then there’s the 7-iron. I never miss with the 7-iron. It’s the only truly safe club in my bag.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
After Roy has a disagreement with Romeo on club selection in the tee box for the 10th hole of the local U.S. Open qualifier, things escalate to a destruction of every club in Roy’s bag until only the 7-Iron remains. Well, even without destroying every other club in their bag, every golfer has that one club they feel most comfortable with. It could be the 7, the 6, any of them, but everyone has that one club that is their safety net, their blanket of comfort. While from the outside looking in, it may appear to be more mental than anything, if picking up the 7-Iron gives you a mental edge, you take that club and you do what you can with it.
Matt, from Reasons Are Several explained “Mental is key here – many golfers will play holes backward (course management) so you leave yourself with the most comfortable club/distance. I can stand over a 54-degree wedge from 110 yards, but I’d rather have 145 and hit the 9-iron. More comfortable and confident scenario.”
Hole 11: The Shanks and How to Cure Them (Par 4)
Roy: You’re the Mexican Mac O’Grady. Figure out why I’m shanking…I’m catching it on the hosel? Moving my head? I’m laying it off?
Romeo: That, too.
Roy: I’m pronating.
Romeo: When you’re not supinating.
Roy: I’m clearing too early, I’m clearing too late. My swing feels like an unfolding chair!
Romeo: Alright, take all your change in your left hand pocket. Go on, do it. Now, tie your left shoe in a double knot.
Roy: Tie my left shoe?
Romeo: Right now Roy, do it! Turn your hat backwards. Turn your hat around. Do it, Roy! Take this tee and stick it behind your left ear.
Roy: Stick it… I look like a fool!
Romeo: What do you think you look like shooting chili peppers up Lee Janzen’s ass? Do it now or I’m going to quit. I swear to God. Good. Take this ball and hit it up the fairway. You’re ready.
[Roy hits the ball straight]
Romeo: You’re ready.
Roy: How’d I do that?
Romeo: Because you’re not thinking about shanking or Molly. You’re not thinking. You’re looking like a fool, and you’re hitting the ball pure and simple…
Roy: Fuck you.
Romeo: Fuck me, huh? Well, you’re cured.
Roy: That’s it?
Romeo: Yeah, that’s it. Your brain was getting in the way.
Roy: That’s hardly ever been the case.
Romeo: No shit, Sherlock.
Remember back on the first hole, “It’s about inner demons, self-doubt, human frailty and overcoming that shit.” Well, a good caddy, and Romeo is a good caddy, can help you get out of your own way, mentally that is. And clearly, with the years they’ve know each other, Romeo knows how to cure Roy’s shanks. It may not work for everyone. I mean, who carries change around anymore? But it worked for Roy, and it’s one of the more pure comedic scenes, despite being played straight by both Costner and Marin.
Hole 12: A Coaching Mistake (Par 3)
Roy: Get drunk?
Romeo: Yeah, you always play better when you’re wasted.
Romeo gets Roy to pass out drunk four hours before tee time, and even toasts him “Here’s to the finely tuned athlete, on the verge of greatness!” It is later remarked after Roy shoots an opening round 83, that Romeo may have made “a coaching mistake…” But in fairness to Romeo, he had cause to think it would work, as it had worked before in Brownsville. And sometimes you should go with what you know.
Hole 13: One ball, One swing, One pelican (Par 4)
One ball, one swing, one pelican…
While there is a lot of gambling within this film, gambling is something that happens out on the course and even adjacent to it. This scene is actually based in reality off of a shot that Gary McCord actually took part in, or so I read. And it also serves as the turn for the film, changing Roy’s momentum, while there is no record of if it helped McCord as it did Roy, I’d like to think it did. But there’s another side to this…
The things men do for the women they’re in love with. It’s a power that most Rom-Coms use to the detriment of the male lead, but in this case, it helps. So I’ll give it a pass, and it is a fun scene, where it is not only the turn for Roy’s momentum in the U.S. Open, but it is also Molly’s turn from David to Roy.
Hole 14: Golf and Sex (Par 4)
“Tempo is everything. Perfection is unattainable…” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
“Golf and sex are the only two things you don’t have to be good at to enjoy.” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
These are both related, as they both come up in the inevitable Rom-Com scene where the two star-crossed lovers finally go to bed, together. Of course, the first could be a line from any romantic comedy, whereas the second belongs to this particular film, as it is a golf film and the two get together before the final round of the U.S. Open.
Hole 15: Heroes (Par 4)
“Another driving range pro, it’s all we needed. It’s heroes that I need. Not obscure driving range pros.” – TV Director
This one is puzzling to me. How could a TV Director not want the unknown driving range pro, as the proverbial “Cinderella story” in any tournament for better ratings? Especially one who’s in contention for the win in the final round. And how is the unknown golfer who’s in contention on Sunday, not a hero? Explain that one, Mr. TV Director!
Seems to me, while known commodities could raise ratings, we all know what Tiger does to TV ratings. The unknown commodity has a way of achieving the same thing if the story is good enough, and in this instance, I believe it probably is. I know I’d turn on the U.S. Open if some random driving range pro was in contention on Sunday.
Hole 16: Low-Percentage Shot (Par 3)
Roy: You don’t think I can knock it on from there?
Commentator: Let’s just say it’s a low-percentage shot.
Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy: Well, so am I! I mean, look at me, all right, what I’m wearing. I mean, I’m playing for Rio Grande Short-Haul Trucking, Briggs and Brown Sanitation, First State Bank of Salome, Woody’s Smokehouse… You think a… you think a guy like me bothers to worry about the percentages?
There’s something to be admired about someone who plays the low-percentage shot. There’s just something special about an athlete or anyone who bets on themselves and is willing to take the risk. The idea that the hook of this film came from a phone call in which the writers spoke to each other saying “That’s the key to our guy: He won’t lay up!” But there really aren’t many people out there like that. Most people like the high-percentage shot, it’s why we all find ourselves rooting for the underdog and getting caught up in the Cinderella stories in sports. But even for those who make it, whatever making it is, getting to the top of a sport, or an industry, even that is a low-percentage shot. We have them all around us, we just tend to focus on the failure of the shot, instead of the idea that sometimes we should go big or go home.
To reuse another quote from the warmup, “Well, what the hell? You ride her until she bucks you or don’t ride at all.”
Hole 17: A Man who went for it (Par 4)
Molly: My problem is, I’ve never been with a man who went for it…
Doreen: Well honey, he’s your guy.”
And right after I dissect the merits of “going for it” is Molly’s comment to Roy’s ex-girlfriend about never being with a man who would take a low-percentage shot, to put it in the parlance of this film. Of course, this is a romantic comedy, so that is probably the only way it should be, but she does lose it during the “big finish,” so perhaps insanity and “going for it” do go hand in hand.
Hole 18: The Immortal 12 (Par 5)
Roy: I just made a 12.
Molly: You sure did Roy, and it was the greatest 12 of all time. No one’s gonna remember the Open five years from now, who won, who lost, but they’re going to remember your 12. My God, Roy, it was… It’s immortal…
Hole 16 is from a press conference in which a reporter asks why Roy went for the shot on 18, which he has put in the water three days in a row. “This is our immortality,” Roy states as he goes for it. The first shot lands on the green and rolls back into the water. But instead of dropping at the edge of the water in the drop zone, he drops it in the same spot with the same result. The third shot goes splash. The fourth shot also goes splash. The fifth shot goes splash for the third time. Then, comes the sixth shot, with the last ball in his bag.
The tension is built up to this sixth and final swing. And this time, he holes out.
Sometimes, it’s not that you lose, but how you lose. But, despite the Hollywood ending, it’s the pain of seeing him ask for another ball over and over that truly builds the tension. “I didn’t come here to play for no second, Romeo,” is what Roy says as he realizes he “gave away the U.S. Open.”
But Roy knew he had that shot in him. He didn’t want to win, playing it safe, even though he knew it was the right play. And if you’re going to win, you have to win the way you play. And Roy plays to “go for it.”
Turning in the card
“You think I learned anything?” – Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy
I don’t know if you did, Roy, but I learned that “there’s no such thing as semi-platonic,” you have to play to win and you should do it your way, and you can’t discount the brilliance that is the movie, Tin Cup.