Since the sporting and wider world ground to a halt mid-March, reruns and classic matches have been about the only option for the sports fanatics out there.
That’s never been my forte, however. If I’m going to delve into the past, then I prefer to do so with a revisionist eye, and preferably, get a glimpse behind the scenes.
That was the beauty of The Last Dance. Sports documentaries don’t come much better than ESPN’s long awaited “fly on the wall” series documenting Michael Jordan’s final season for the Chicago Bulls, viewed through the framework of the preceding decade and the subsequent 20-odd years.
Though it’s been several weeks since the final episode aired, it’s left me riding a wave of ‘90s nostalgia in more ways than one. This was the decade in which I played my first football match, got my first kiss, had my heart broken for the first time – nothing more romantic than Eric Cantona’s dying moments winner in the ’96 FA Cup Final, unfortunately – and saw Donegal win their first ever All-Ireland Football title.
The half-century linking the 1910s and the 1960s may be known as Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the ‘90s may be its Golden Decade. Still riding that Last Dance wave, I turned my nostalgic eyes to ‘90s big screen. Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, Titanic and American Beauty all won Best Picture Academy awards, and films like Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, In the Name of the Father, The Shawshank Redemption, Scent of a Woman, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, and The Sixth Sense provided the supporting cast.
After the heavy drama of The Last Dance, I was in search of some lighter entertainment, however, and my trawl through the comedy section threw up Happy Gilmore. As much an Adam Sandler fan as I’d been, I probably hadn’t watched the greatest golf movie ever made (sorry Tin Cup) in about 15 years. Why not?
For those who haven’t seen it, there are no great lessons to be learned, no moral messages, just good old slapstick comedy that inspired an entire generation of golfers to attempt Happy’s trademark ‘run-up and strike’ style.
Happy – played by Sandler – is an enthusiastic but generally useless hockey player whose one quality – a powerful and accurate shot – is negated by his complete inadequacy on skates. By a stroke of luck, with an inherited set of ancient golf clubs, Happy discovers his one hockey talent means that he can drive a golf ball 400-yards and reluctantly sets about conquering the stuffy, country club scene of professional golf, while staying true to his aggressive and expletive-laden nature.
Gilmore’s ascent threatens the status quo of the game, and we soon see leather-clad bikers, rock-star groupies and a homeless caddie all join Happy on his quest to challenge the plaid-sweater wearing elite of the game, to win the Tour Championship and earn enough money to save his grandma’s house.
Though I said there was no moral message, it did get me thinking. If real life golf ever had a Happy Gilmore moment – or something that bears vague resemblance – what would it be?
Well, two occasions spring to mind. The first being when ninth-alternate, moustachioed and mulleted John Daly stormed to victory at the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. The second coming when a 21-year-old African-American-Asian kid crushed the field to win the 1997 Masters.
Like Sandler’s fictional character, the very real Daly was rough around the edges, prone to outbursts of rage, and attracted a cult following of non-typical golf fans. But coming five years before Happy Gilmore hit the movie theatres, golf still wasn’t quite ready for Daly.
Woods – like Daly and Gilmore – wowed audiences and cowed opponents with his prodigious length, but years of military upbringing, natural shyness and early financial security had polished Tiger’s rough edges. He wasn’t going to make headlines in the same way that a John Daly or a Happy Gilmore might, but it didn’t matter. By 1997, golf was ready, and Tigermania exploded.
To understand quite what this did for the psyche of regular golf fans, we need look no further than the US Open, the second major of the year, and coming just nine weeks after Woods’ 12-stroke victory at Augusta.
Just ten miles from the White House, Congressional Country Club is as elite and uncompromising as any you’ll find outside of Augusta, Georgia. Even the name of its championship course, “The Blue Course,” hints at the bloodlines of those fortunate enough to call themselves members. And under the watchful gaze of the most powerful man on earth – the President of the United States, not Woods – there was a different flavour to the gallery than had ever been seen before.
Writing for Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly wrote that “for the first time, the sentence “check out that pin placement” might refer to a pierced nose in the gallery,” before going on to write that one Congressional member had grumbled that “these aren’t golf fans, these are yahoos.”
Amid heavy thunderstorms on Friday and Saturday, scenes outside the ropes began to resemble those at a music festival, with drunken hordes engaging in all manner of revelry, doing Mexican waves and even creating a mud slide that fans would take a run at before shooting head first down the muddy banks, often ending up in the water hazard surrounding the 17th green.
For some players, it was too much to handle. In the movie, Happy Gilmore’s arch nemesis is Shooter McGavin, whose bitter contempt for the rabble rousers is palpable. I doubt very much that Colin Montgomerie had seen the movie, but his prickly on-course nature saw him unwittingly fill Shooter’s shoes, firing back at the gallery to “save it for the Ryder Cup” as he was serenaded with chants of “USA, USA, USA” on every missed putt.
Unfortunately, real life very seldom follows a Hollywood script. Woods and Monty didn’t duel it out down the home stretch with the young protagonist overcoming ill-fortune and underhand tactics. Instead, a big South African named Ernie Els went home with the trophy and though the crowd probably didn’t realise it, the Big Easy was every bit as fond of a beer tent as they were.
Still, they’d gotten drunk, laughed, cheered, and booed, they were soaked to the skin, some had fallen, many were muddied head-to-toe, and they’d all had a hell of a time.
And there was no fear of candid footage appearing on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter either.
God bless the ‘90s.