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The film begins in the late 1800s, showing a cottage on the Isle of Wight. A boy inside wakes up when a group of 4 men in fancy dress and top hats come near the house and set up for a picture. The boy comes outside and ask what they're doing here. The men reply that the area is going to become a course for golf, a game "not for the likes of people like you". The man flicks a silver coin at him and the credits roll.
After the credits finish, we see Boston in 1900. A young boy is caddying for a man at a golf course. He turns away as the man kicks his ball out of the woods. As they begin to move on, the boy finds a slightly buried ball, marked "Vardon Flyer". We then see the boy at home, cherishing his new golf ball. The boy is Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) and he loves the game of golf. He candidly watches a man making golf clubs and the man spots him. Soon after, while Francis is waiting to watch the man, he sneaks behind him and sits a golf club beside him. He then walks away. Francis begins practicing late at night with his new club and his Vardon golf ball, putting in his family's house and keeping his brother awake. When he sees an ad for "The Stylist" Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), who has won 4 British Open Championships, announcing his visit to Boston, Francis begs his father to allow him to skip school and see Vardon. His father claims that golf is not a game for them and he shouldn't waste his time on it, so he forbids Francis from going. Francis' mother seems upset at this and after Francis' dad leaves for work, she takes Francis to go shopping with her. She just happens to be shopping across the street from where Vardon is visiting, so she tells Francis to go ahead over. He manages to get to the front of the crowd where he watches Vardon make some spectacular drives. He then asks for a volunteer and young Francis jumps up. Vardon has him try a swing, which is pretty poor. Then, Vardon steps up to Francis and tells him to try holding the club like you would hold a bird: "just tight enough to keep it from flying away, but not hard enough to squish it". Francis tries again and has a remarkably improved swing. Shortly after this, we cut to London and Vardon is returning from winning the U.S. Open. As he is talking to his friend, we find out that he is trying to become a member of a golf club and believes that his latest trophy will finally guarantee him a spot. In talking with his friend, we come to understand that Vardon himself was not born into sophisticated society. However, when he meets with club officials, they say they would love to have him work for the club. Vardon is visibly displeased.
We next see Francis as a man in his late teens, still practicing putting in the middle of the night. He comes to caddy for one of the club members, who tells Francis to get his own clubs. Francis doesn't understand and says that caddies aren't allowed to play, which the member shakes off and says to just get his clubs and let's play. Francis does pretty well for never shooting a game of golf. On one of the holes, he sees a man watching him (the man who made the golf clubs). He starts to choke a bit, until he regains his composure. When they finish, the golf club maker comes up and asks him what he shot. Francis tells him he shot an 81 with the 9 strokes on the mess up hole. The club member has been listening and now appears, saying about how incredible that on Francis first time on the most difficult course in New England, he shot such a great score. The two then urge Francis to compete in the Nation Amateur Championship Qualifier coming to the course. The selection committee is reluctant to take on a caddy, with most of the members saying that golf is a gentleman's game, and caddies should never play. However, one member lets slip that all Francis would need is a sponsoring club member (the one that played with Francis...can't remember his name, so he'll just be sponsoring club member) and the 50 dollar entrance fee. When Francis asks his dad for the entrance fee, his father is initially skeptical, but eventually allows Francis to play provided that should he lose, he will quit playing golf, finish school, and earn a working man's wage.
Francis comes to the course clubhouse for the player's ball. While he's there, a young woman comes up to him and asks him to pretend like he's just asked her to dance. Shortly after, another young man comes up and says "You promised me a dance!", to which the young lady replies that the young man here already asked me. He walks off in a huff and proceeds to watch them. Francis introduces himself and suggests maybe they should dance anyway. Francis leads the young woman, Sarah (Peyton List), to believe he's born into rich family and taking a "semester off to consider his options". After they dance, they run into Sarah's brother Freddie, who recognizes Francis from being a caddy and starts calling him "Caddy Boy". Francis leaves in shame.
The next day, we see Francis pairing with Freddie to play in the Amateur Qualifier. As he plays, we see he is right on the edge of qualifying. On the last hole, the golf club maker tells him he needs a 5 to qualify, which Francis replies he could shoot in his sleep. He proceeds to make 4 shots to get his ball right near the hole. He lines up his put and before he shoots, he sees his father standing in the crowd. Now shaken, his shot goes JUST wide of the hole. Francis finishes 1 shot behind the qualifying spot. He goes home in tears and tells his father "You win". He begins packing away all his golfing equipment and crumples up news clippings about Harry Vardon, who has become a sort of idol to Francis. But no more.
We go back to London, where Harry is playing pool with the head of the golf club, a newspaper reporter (Harry's friend from before), and another man who is later introduced as Wilfred Reid, England's Amateur Champ. The golf club president is talking about how only one sport championship is still in America's hands, the U.S. Open. If someone from England were to win it, they would have complete dominance. The golf club president asks Harry to go win one, promising to make him honorary club member if he wins one last one. Harry accepts, but says he needs another man to share the load with him. The golf president suggests Reid, but Harry has in mind Ted Ray, a HUGE guy in a bar who makes his fame by smashing a golf ball through a whole phone book. He is obviously another man not born into sophisticated society.
Back in Boston, Francis is working as a shopboy, and no longer interested in golf. However, one day the club member who sponsored Francis comes in with the president of the golf club. They talk about having amateurs at the U.S. Open (which happens to be playing at the golf club across the street from Francis' house) and Francis' name came up. However, Francis politely declines, saying he no longer is interested in golf. The men leave, but not before the president says something to Francis about giving up his dreams at such a young age. Francis picks up a golf club after they leave and practices his swing. We then see him running up to the golf course. He interrupts a meeting between some of the club officials, asking the president if the offer still stands. He is told to wait outside. After a few minutes, he is tapped on the shoulder. It's the club maker and the sponsoring club member, and they tell Francis to meet them at the club early tomorrow for they have a lot of work to do.
We then see the club maker improving Francis' stance, swing, and other aspects of his game. Finally, he feels Francis is ready. The morning of the Open, there is a ceremony in which the British visitors are welcomed. Defending US champion John McDermott (Michael Weaver) tries to welcome the players, but ends up yelling at them about how the British aren't going to take the US trophy by simply "showing up". It's obvious this game will be a US-UK fight all the way. At tee time, Francis' caddy leaves him for a paying offer from another competitor. Desperate for a caddy, Francis asks his friend to caddy for him, but the friend decides to let his brother, Eddie (Josh Flitter) do it instead. Francis is a bit skeptical at first (as the club bag is bigger than Eddie!), but he soon relents. Eddie fits the bill immediately by making a good comeback at some snooty men making fun of how small Eddie is.
As the tournament progresses, we see Reid (the English amateur) having some good success, John McDermott (the US champion) shooting well and leading, Harry Vardon shooting well enough to keep him in the top 3, and Ted Ray keeping pace with Vardon. Francis likewise plays well, climbing up the board, but staying out of the picture at first. After the first day, Francis' name appears in the paper, where his father sees it and is outraged. He and Francis argue, resulting in the father to tell Francis to find somewhere else to live after the tournament. As Round 2 progresses, we start to see Harry Vardon trembling during his swings. When he looks into the crowd, he sees 4 gentlemen with top hats. They are the men from the beginning...the boy we see in the beginning is Harry Vardon. Harry's play keeps him in the number 2 spot, while US champ John McDermott begins slipping. Francis has his own troubles as well. He hasn't paid attention to the board so he doesn't know that he's tied for 2nd with Vardon. However, his friend from the shop tells him, and also mentions that President Taft is attending the Open. And surely enough, he's watching Francis play!. So, now of course, Francis begins to choke up. Eddie steps in after he shoots his ball into the woods and tells him to stop thinking about the others and just take things one shot at a time. Francis starts doing better, but slowly slips back down the board.
At the end of Round 2, we see Reid talking with the English club president, who mentions that the Prime Minister has promised him a spot on the cabinet should an Englishman win, and tells Reid to go for the championship himself. Reid then goes to gloat to Vardon and Ray, who are eating, about the superiority of sophisticated culture. After he mentions Jersey (which is where Vardon and Ray grew up), Ray nonchalantly decks Reid, and apologizes to Vardon, saying "Sorry, he shouldnt've brought Jersey into it", and walks away. Reid gets up with a bloodied nose and asks Vardon how he looks, to which Vardon replies "You look better for it".
Through Round 3, we see Ted Ray and Harry Vardon doing very well, while Reid and McDermott plummet. Francis also does well, as he sees Sarah in the crowd and starts improving his play, knowing she is supporting him. She comes up to talk to him, but he is running to his next hole. He asks her to come back the following day, but she says she has to go to school. She gives Eddie a good luck charm and asks him to give it to Francis. At the end of the day, the English reporter is sending his column home, and in it, after mentioning how Ray and Vardon are doing, makes a point to describe Ouimet, the amateur who is climbing the boards and challenging the Goliaths (Vardon and Ray). At dinner, Francis and the family are going on about his play when his father comes, making a remark about how Francis earns nothing if he wins and what kind of work is that. Francis' mother scolds his father after Francis leaves, telling him Francis is trying to make him proud.
Round 4 takes place in drenching rain and at the last hole, while Francis is lining up his put, we find out that if Francis makes this put, he will tie with Vardon and Ray to play a playoff round for the Cup. We see Francis' mother, who has been listening to the crowd to find out how her son is doing, suddenly getting worried because the crowd is silent at the golf course. She takes off her apron and starts to run across the street when we hear an enormous cheer from the crowd. Francis made the put and is in the playoff round. The U.K. reporter again talks about the three golfers, saying "This could very well be the greatest game ever played".
That night, Vardon and Ray are talking with the golf club president, who is confident the English will win since they are up against an amateur, and a man of "unsophisticated" life. Ray is getting angry, but excuses himself to go to bed. As Vardon leaves, he gets upset at the president and yells at him, saying "If Ouimet beats me tomorrow, it is because he is the better player, and not because of who he is".
The morning of the playoffs, the golf club officials have told Eddie that Francis wants a better caddy for the playoffs. The club officials think that Francis can't do it alone and needs an "expert" caddy. Francis gets there just in time to stop Eddie and tell him he shouldn't listen to those men and just to listen to Francis. As they leave, Francis coldly tells them "Don't ever talk to my caddy again". The playoff round gets underway and we see the players matching each other shot for shot. We also see Sarah in the crowd. After many holes, Francis seems to get and edge on Vardon by one stroke, but then Vardon's next shot puts his ball right in front of Francis', blocking the cup. Francis takes a club and tells Eddie to watch this, and he makes a spectacular chip shot which jumps Vardon's ball and hits into the hole. But then it bounces back out. Game still tied. As they're going to the next hole, the U.K. reporter is standing along the way and leans into Francis and says "You can do it Francis, You can win". Francis looks up at him, but he coyly shrugs his shoulders, saying nothing else aloud.
After many more holes, Ray finally makes a mistake when he hits the ball into the trees. Now, with the play down to Vardon and Francis, Vardon makes a drive that goes over some trees. Francis assumes he's onto the green, so he is about to try to make the same shot when Eddie stops him and tells him it's a trick. Francis believes him and shoots to the left of the trees, lining him up for a long straight drive to the green. We then go over to Vardon's ball...which is in a sand trap. He has to chip it out of the sand trap, and then onto the green, putting Francis up by one stroke. As the two reach the green, they find themselves about equal length away. Francis shoots first and doesn't make the put, coming very close to the cup. Vardon lines up the shot, but seems to tremble again, and his put lines up perfectly on the cup...but falls just short, on the edge! All Francis has to do now is sink this final put and he will win! He lines it up and puts in for the win. The crowd carries Eddie and Francis off, offering dollars to Francis, which he tells them to give to Eddie. In the middle of it all, he looks down at a man, and sees his father, holding up a dollar for Francis. They get big old smiles on their face and Francis' father gives him a thumbs up before Francis is carried off. In the clubhouse after, while Francis is packing up, Vardon comes up to him and congratulates him on a great game. As he's leaving, he turns and says to Francis. "We should play again some time", then leaves. The movie ends with Eddie and Francis walking off.
- Shia LaBeouf as Francis Ouimet
- Stephen Dillane as Harry Vardon
- Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowery
- Peter Firth as Lord Northcliffe
- Peyton List as Sarah Wallis
- Elias Koteas as Arthur Ouimet
- Len Cariou as Stedman Comstock
- Stephen Marcus as Ted Ray
- Max Kasch as Freddie Wallis
- Mike 'Nug' Nahrgang as Baritone
- Directed by Bill Paxton
- Produced by Brian Grazer, David Blocker, Larry Brezner, Mark Frost
- Music by Brian Tyler
- Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
- Editing by Elliot Graham
- Studio: Imagine Entertainment, Fairway Films
- Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures
- Release date: September 30, 2005
- Running time 120 minutes
- Country United States
- Language English
- Budget $25 million
- Box office $52,930,646
The film received mixed to generally positive reviews. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes 62% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 109 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes considers it "fresh" and summarizes it saying "Despite all the underdog sports movie conventions, the likable cast and lush production values make The Greatest Game Ever Played a solid and uplifting tale." By contrast, Metacritic gave it a score of 55 out of 100.
The film has been released on DVD by the Walt Disney company. Special features include two "making of" documentaries with cast and crew members, plus a rare 1963 interview with the real Francis Ouimet on WGBH, the Boston public television station, at Brookline, Massachusetts golf course where the 1913 U.S. Open took place.