The Greatest Game

By Philip Pearce

GOLF IS A SECOND RELIGION for many a Monterey Peninsula resident and many another visitor but even if that doesn’t include you Howard Burnham’s new show The Greatest Game is a total delight.

He offers a swift, informative, often funny history of the game in the role of a bearded, 18th century Scottish champion named Thomas Mitchell Morris Sr. Opinionated, informed and full of anecdotes, he spends three quarters of an hour telling us first about himself and then about our own beloved Bobby Jones.

Nicknamed “Old Tom” to distinguish him from his nearly as famous golfer son “Young Tom,” Morris starts out with a sniffy rejection of a claim that the great game was invented when some Chinese sportsmen began batting a small round object around with sticks during the Tang Dynasty. Old Tom will have none of that nonsense. The Greatest Game began in Scotland, where he was instrumental in changing the original sewn leather bag stuffed with feathers into the recognizable hard gutta percha golf ball he and his mates called “the guttie.”

The show, which took the form of a webinar on Saturday, is a treasure trove of interesting facts about the development of the game, much of it centered in the shifts and changes of Scotland’s world famous St Andrews course. Like the fact that a round of golf at first involved only eleven holes, but you played them going out and then back in reverse order for a total of 22. When players found some of the awkwardly short holes they were redesigned in a one way, eighteen-hole pattern. The eighteenth hole at St Andrews today is named for Old Tom himself.

The action moves from 18th century Scotland to colonial America and swiftly forward to the life and career of Bobby Jones of Atlanta, generally regarded as the greatest man who ever covered the international golf scene. And he did it for only three months out of the year, the other months being spent as a successful Atlanta lawyer. Along the way, we note the development of  major tournaments like the British Open and the Augusta National.

Burnham’s performance was so vividly acted and with visuals so compelling I was sure Howard  himself had to be a keen golfer, a distinction he firmly denied in the closing Q and A. But acting’s all about being someone different from yourself and you shouldn’t miss the fun of watching him do that in The Great Game: Old Tom and Young Bobby.