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John P. McCarthySeptember 12, 2011

With the possible exception of baseball, no sport is more amenable to religious interpretation than golf. As every weekend duffer knows, the game unleashes fierce mental demons. Success appears to stem from a mystical connection between player and course. And while God is no stranger to NFL huddles or NASCAR’s pit row, the best evidence of golf’s theological fecundity may be the high percentage of professional players who are born-again Christians. A partial list includes Champtions Tour (for "seniors" 50 and over) notables Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin and Scott Simpson, plus young guns like Ricky Fowler, Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley.

In 2006, sport psychologist David L. Cook published a combination instruction manual, ode to mentorship and spiritual tract titled “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia.” Not without cause, the recently released film version of the book will be dismissed as country-club-meets-Bible-Belt hooey by viewers with no stake in the game or Cook’s Christian outlook. On screen as on the page, Seven Days in Utopia is about a fictional golfer’s redemption; it also seeks to convert those who haven’t embraced Christ as their savior. A few swings might be fixed along the way. Sympathetic galleries will be riveted. However, in addition to stumbling evangelically, the picture underperforms artistically. It is further evidence that proselytizing and popular entertainment rarely mix well nowadays.

Although it begins by citing Isaiah 30:21, the movie never adopts a preachy tone or any fire-and-brimstone rhetorical tactics. There’s scant mention of God or Jesus, and no specific denomination is championed. Aspiring PGA Tour golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black) melts down while leading a key qualifying event, carding a 14 on a par 4 and watching his caddy/father/coach walk off the course in disgust. Following this well-publicized collapse, Luke crashes his car into a field outside Utopia (population 350), an actual town in the Texas Hill Country. A rancher named Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall) appears on horseback with a proposition: spend a week in Utopia and you will get your game back.

Johnny doesn’t mention the salvific side of the bargain; still, a revolution within Luke’s soul does occur in the tranquil, supportive confines of this idyllic community. Turns out, the old guy knows heaps about golf—and about what can ail a man more generally. First, Luke learns the importance of having total conviction regarding every choice, starting with how he grips the club. A day spent fly-fishing underscores the need for emotional control and finding “rhythm, balance and patience.” An exercise involving oil paints enables Luke to properly visualize his golf shots; and he's introduced to an unorthodox, face-on putting technique. On the fifth day, Luke and Johnny take to the sky in a small plane, and by day six the student is ready to hit the links armed with a set of antique clubs. Johnny boils his week-long tutorial down to the mantra, “See it. Feel it. Trust it.” Its utility will soon be demonstrated, yet not before Luke experiences a religious epiphany (and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it baptism) on the seventh day after “burying old lies” in Utopia’s cemetery.

"Seven Days in Utopia" is serviceable from a production standpoint. It had the backing of the PGA Tour and The Golf Channel, and a number of pros appear, most significantly Korean golfer K. J. Choi, another devout Christian, who portrays a dominant tour player. The likeable Black’s real-life golfing prowess boosts the film’s authenticity; and Duvall effortlessly embodies the folksy sage, an ex-pro who’s overcome adversity with the help of the Head Pro Upstairs. Melissa Leo and Kathy Baker have small roles as supportive womenfolk, while Deborah Ann Woll is asked to carry the movie’s most lachrymose water as Luke’s love interest. (See her character’s discourse on fireflies and freedom.)

When he wants to convey emotional turmoil, first-time director and co-screenwriter Matthew Russell resorts to quick edits, and he’s overly fond of flashbacks, particularly when illustrating Luke’s relationship with his domineering father (a subplot absent from the book). Overall, Russell doesn’t exhibit much patience or trust. He rushes through, as though he has no confidence in the material or his own ability to find its “sweet spot.” The script he and Rob Levine penned has its share of clichés as well as a few affecting passages, for example, the lovely grace Johnny says before a meal. The soundtrack’s twangy guitar riffs and swelling strings telegraph moments in Luke’s journey; with as little nuance, the cinematography relies on gold-bathed images of the Texas Hill Country and shots of precocious animals to signify heartland wholesomeness. 

Other than God, nothing distracts from the mentoring relationship in Cook’s plainspoken book. And whatever its literary merits, the Zen-like emphasis he places on process and temperament can be fruitfully applied to performance in countless areas. From a broad faith perspective, the message is unassailable. As a logical matter, believers in God (or any higher power) are obligated to put all worldly endeavors into proper perspective. The calmness attained through that exercise is vital to success in those endeavors. Cook doesn’t claim golf is the sole path to redemption, only that God is the top swing coach. Nothing steadies you on the links like a personal relationship with Him.

In the movie, this message is fleshed out with added features, some of which are chosen with an eye toward the widest possible demographic appeal. Not only does Luke experience (chaste) romance, he has a rival in that regard (a local hotshot). Inserting father-son conflict likewise juices the plot, while deepening the resonance of Luke finding a surrogate patriarch in Johnny. By the same token, the screenplay omits a moving episode from the book. After leaving Utopia and entering the next week’s tournament, Luke promptly pays the Good News forward by helping another tortured golfer see the light. 

The depiction of Luke’s comeback during that event, The Texas Valero Open, is the most problematic aspect of "Seven Days in Utopia." (Describing it necessitates issuing a spoiler alert, although it’s really no mystery what will transpire.) To secure the win on a playoff hole, Luke adopts the putting style Johnny taught him. As the ball rolls across the green toward the cup, the camera swings heavenward. Without showing whether or not the ball drops, the movie ends with a title card: “To continue the journey go to www.didhemaketheputt.com.”

In theory, this is a relatively daring attempt to subvert viewer expectations—our desire for a happy, Hollywood ending in which righteous protagonists are rewarded. Yet rather than short-circuiting conventional storytelling and testing our willingness to accept the idea that Luke’s winning is immaterial, this indeterminate finale feels like a manipulative ploy by the filmmakers. A visit to the Web site reveals the putt did drop—nullifying the viewer’s leap of faith by suggesting Luke’s relationship with God does need earthly validation. Moreover, the purpose of the site is to spur the visitor to begin his or her own faith journey—to convert in other words. Thus "Seven Days of Utopia" doesn’t offer a very unusual, let alone radical, narrative payoff; and its storytelling missteps hobble its evangelical aims. The urge to evangelize undercuts the movie’s entertainment value, and vice versa.

While God may be essential to the game of golf, as He is to all of Creation, He’s not as organic to "Seven Days in Utopia" as the filmmakers intend. Without unfairly undervaluing its wisdom, the film would benefit from more rhythm, balance and patience, and, above all, from more trust in its message and its audience. 

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