I grew up on it. Sitting in the back of a tan minivan with a portable DVD player on my lap, watching Francis Ouimet win the US Open over and over again. Except, this wasn’t historical footage that I was viewing; it was Disney’s masterpiece: The Greatest Game Ever Played. A hidden gem and one of the most criminally underrated golf movies, it was the first piece of golf content that set me down a path of obsession with the game. Starring Shia Labeouf as Ouimet, the film is a masterclass in passion and inner struggle, gamesmanship and genius, failure and triumph. While Labeouf, a genius in his own right, portrays the “Father of Amateur Golf” in what can only be described as the biggest Oscar snub of 2005, it is Stephen Dillane’s Harry Vardon that has come to take on a strangely whole new meaning in the years since the movie’s release.
After being bested by Ouimet at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, it seems as though Harry Vardon turned in his clubs for a sword and made the long trek to Westeros to fight dragons instead of fairways. Now, for those of you that may have missed the boat on Game of Thrones, allow me to describe that sentence. For that, we’re going to have to fast forward seven years from the premiere of The Greatest Game Ever Played, to 2012. I am sitting in my friend’s basement, watching Game of Thrones, much to my parents’ disapproval. (Remember here, I’m fourteen at the time and watching nighttime HBO. You do the math.) When suddenly, Harry Vardon, yeah Harry FREAKIN’ Vardon, hops on screen. I ecstatically scream, “Dude, look, it’s ‘the Stylist’ ”. To which my buddy looks at me blankly like, “What are you talking about?”.
Well, let me tell you what I was talking about. My whole childhood, I looked up to Harry Vardon, the Stylist, as an exemplary personification of an honorable approach to competition. In The Greatest Game Ever Played, it is Vardon who exists as the bridge between Ouimet and one Lord Northcliffe, a British newspaper magnate hellbent on the publicity that a British victory would bring. Northcliffe was modeled after the real-life Lord Alfred Harmsworth, for those history buffs among you. While Vardon is the tournament opposition to our protagonist in Ouimet, Northcliffe would be described as the focal antagonist. That is because Vardon approaches the 1913 US Open as a competition to decide the greatest golfer at that moment and is congratulatory towards Ouimet after he is bested by the young American, something Northcliffe’s pompous perception of himself would never allow. Yes, Vardon was an excellent role model for a young man just learning the difference between a pitch and chip … and now I just saw what appeared to be the same person decapitating heads and enacting murder plots. Talk about a personality clash, for real.
Let me paint you this picture. In my head, I’m watching Harry Vardon, who apparently has given up his hickories for a sword and is now being referred to as Stannis Baratheon: conjure up a murder plot towards his nephew; father a demon shadow child; allow his own (human) daughter to be burned at the stake; engage in an on-again-off-again relationship with an actual witch; and fight literal snow zombies. (It’s a weird show I know, but I’m telling you it has its moments). We had come a long way from when Vardon was holing putts and shaking hands. Honestly, the only thing that Harry and Stannis may have had in common was relentlessness, albeit in very, very different activities. There was a small part of me that kept waiting for the episode where Stannis would randomly come in from a long day of battle and go shoot a quick twilight round at TPC Westeros or something. That didn’t happen though. But hey, if anyone from HBO wants to discuss that possibility, let me know and we can set up a meeting.
Alas, much to everyone’s displeasure, it actually was not Harry Vardon who occupied the television screen every Sunday night each spring. Heartbreaking, I know. It was, instead, actually Stannis Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End. You could forgive me for being confused though as Stephen Dillane did not seem to age one bit from his portrayal of Vardon to Baratheon. While it, unfortunately, was not the Stylist who was yielding swords and campaigning to rule Westeros, I could never come to terms with that. I chose instead to think that Harry Vardon decided that winning major championships was not enough for him, and decided to set his sights on the game of thrones, instead of the game of golf. After that, the show took on a whole new meaning for me, and honestly, it only ever made it that much more enjoyable.
An inexplicable story of a little Scottish town’s spellbinding place in our enchanted game