Golf in the Kingdom, based on the bestselling novel by Michael Murphy, follows a slightly fictionalized version of Murphy (Mason Gamble) as he sets off for India in 1956 in search of the kind of enlightenment that tends to characterize young philosophy students. Naïve, with a self-entitlement that verges on the egotistical, Murphy takes a Scottish detour from his trip to play a round of golf at the links of Burningbush, a legendary course that was supposedly the birthplace of the sport. Drinking in the lush, green rolling hills, Murphy requests that he be paired with the best golfer that Burningbush can provide, promising he’ll more than hold his own.
That golfer turns out to be Shivas Irons (David O’Hara), a charismatic—and presumably superb—golfer who acts as the callow young man’s personal Yoda, lecturing him on the deeper philosophical implications of the game, which has little to do, as usual, with actual winning. Preoccupied with his swing, and with the score that he routinely messes up in his own favor, Murphy must learn to appreciate the game for its classical existential appeal. Shivas insists that it’s the walking that truly marks golf as a special past time, as it’s the walking that allows us to bond with our fellow man, to quietly meditate and zone out while basking in nature’s glorious/mysterious rhythms.
Golf in the Kingdom has a relatively simple problem: Those who take golf this seriously probably won’t go for a sluggish, amateurishly lit picture that reduces the titular past time to a third banana, while those who think golf is, well, to put it lightly, a crock of shit will find much of the prolonged pontificating laughable. Murphy falls in with Shivas’s equally mystical friends (including a number of good actors, such as Julian Sands, Malcolm McDowell, and Frances Fisher) affording each and every one the opportunity to get loaded and expound upon the apparently impenetrable mysteries of golf. One chap identifies golf as the “yoga of the supermind,” while another lauds the symbolism of the anticipation of where the ball might drop on the course.
Maybe this stuff worked on the page, but the movie is an unwatchable philosophy seminar that’s nowhere near as profound as it thinks it is. There’s nothing wrong with deriving deep comfort—even a sense of profundity—from a hobby, as it’s our hobbies and absurd little preoccupations that allow us to deal with life’s various indignities. If Golf in the Kingdom had approached Shivas’s obsessions with even a hint of affectionate humor, the film might have worked, or it would be, at the very least, less irritatingly pompous and gasbaggy. But filmmaker Susan Streitfeld takes all of the mysticism at face value, shutting the audience out of pleasures that are discussed but rarely shown. Ron Shelton’s underappreciated Tin Cup is a far more convincing ode to golf—a rambling, disreputably enjoyable shout-out to our sweet obsessions. Golf in the Kingdom, for all its trite lessons, forgets that people mainly play golf because they enjoy it.