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The inside story of how "Tin Cup" became a classic

October 04, 2021

Twenty-five years ago, audiences fell in love with a fresh face on the golf scene. He had power, he had swagger, and he loved going for par 5s in two.

No, we’re not talking about Tiger Woods, but rather Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy. It turns out one of the most famous golf movie characters hit theaters less than two weeks before Tiger turned pro in August of 1996. But while Woods sparked a golf boom, sadly, the driving range pro from West Texas didn’t usher in an era of (other) great golf movies.

“Tin Cup,” however, still holds up, as evidenced by how often it gets referenced by golfers and by the countless re-airings of it on Golf Channel. And the biggest reason for the cult following that’s developed over the past quarter century is the character of McAvoy, a West Texas driving range pro talented enough to be on the PGA Tour, but pigheaded enough to always get in his own way.

"The fact that year after year after year, not only on the Golf Channel or on cable or in life, like when Jean van de Velde blew the British Open and they said on TV, ‘Oh my god it’s 'Tin Cup,'" producer Gary Foster said. "Every time I play golf with someone I don’t know . . . I say, 'Oh, I did this movie Tin Cup.' (They say) 'Oh, my god!' Of course, it feels amazing. Because most movies don’t last, and this is a classic."

So to honor "Tin Cup's" silver anniversary, we went behind the scenes—literally—with some of the people involved with the film, including Tin Cup himself. From how the film came together, to funny tales from the set, to why Kevin Costner almost didn't take the role, here's more on what is, for our money, the most authentic golf movie ever made. And why there hasn't been another one quite like it.

BELOW: LISTEN TO THE LOCAL KNOWLEDGE PODCAST ON "TIN CUP"

• • • • •

In the fall of 1994, the writer and director Ron Shelton, writer John Norville, and producer Gary Foster got together for a round of golf at Ojai Valley Inn that proved to be an important step in the creation of what would become “Tin Cup.” Golf buddies and fellow screenwriters Shelton and Norville had discussed doing a movie about the game for years, but looping in Foster, whose long list of producing credits include “Sleepless in Seattle” and the TV show “Community,” was an important next step.

“So we had a fun round of golf and then we were sitting at the bar afterwards and (said) something to the effect of, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could do this every day, get paid for it?” Foster said. “Is there a movie? Is there an idea?”

That idea had actually first taken shape during the final round of the 1993 Masters. That’s when Chip Beck infamously laid up on the par-5 15th hole during the final round when he trailed eventual winner Bernhard Langer by three shots. It was the closest Beck ever came to winning a major, but in a weird way he helped create the character who would eventually become known as Roy McAvoy.

Chip Beck plays third shot to the 15th green after laying up during the final round of the 1993 Masters.

David Cannon

“And we got on the phone immediately and said, OK, the guy’s flaw is that he can’t lay up. He’s incapable of laying up,” Shelton said. “What about a guy who keeps going for it on the last hole? And his hubris, what’s great about him is also what his flaw is. He has to go for it. Even if it’s going to kill him. And there’s something that I admire about that. And there’s something that’s childlike. And we all have a self-destructive streak, probably. We actually started with the ending.”

We’ll get into that famed ending more in a little bit, but first, let’s address why making a golf movie requires the same type of daring attitude as going for a par 5 in two with a tournament on the line. Seriously, think about how few great golf movies have been made. Then think about how few golf movies have been made at all in the past 25 years.

If anyone could pull it off, though, it was Shelton, who had already written and directed a couple classic sports movies, "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can’t Jump." But Shelton says golf was by far the most difficult sport he’s ever shot.

“We had a number of concerns. One of them was that it’s not a dynamic game in the way basketball, football and boxing are. Even baseball. It’s a mental game mostly,” Shelton said. “A golf course is 150 acres and a tournament is 150 guys doing basically the same thing over and over."

Writer and director Ron Shelton flanked by "Tin Cup's" two star golfers.

Evan Agostini

Finding a place to shoot was also an issue. The driving range where Tin Cup works was built from scratch in a remote area about an hour south of Tucson, but even a major motion picture’s budget doesn’t cover building an entire golf course to host a fictional major championship. After a search across Florida, Myrtle Beach and San Francisco, they settled on Kingwood Country Club just outside of Houston, shooting most of those tournament scenes on the Forest and Deerwood courses there. Arizona’s Tubac Golf Club was also used for some of the film’s earlier scenes.

But there's are also an economic reason for the lack of golf movies—and sports movies in general. As Foster explained, there are many foreign distributors who explicitly have it written in their contracts that they won’t deal with the sports genre.

“In America, yes, sports genre films can work. You know, Bull Durham and Tin Cup and all those films Ron makes, they work here. But they don’t travel as well,” Shelton said. “We thought with Tin Cup and golf, especially in Japan and other parts of Asia since golf is such a big sport, we might have another result. We did OK initially and overtime it’s continued to have an audience around the world, but it didn’t break out the way we had hoped it would.”

That’s not to say it didn’t do well. Very well, in fact. Despite being moved to a less-than-desirable late August release due to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, “Tin Cup” opened number one in the box office. And it wound up taking in nearly $76 million, exceeding the movie’s reported budget by some $30 million.

Obviously, having one of the biggest movie stars on the planet attached to your script certainly helps get it into theaters. But even with Shelton and Norville targeting Costner for the role right away, he was initially reluctant.

“I wasn’t going to do Tin Cup. Not because I didn’t think it was good, not because I didn’t think it was great. It was, I could see it,” Costner said. “But I was going through a divorce and I had just finished the longest movie in history. The average movie films for 40-60 days and I had just done 157 days on Waterworld. And I was really low. . . . I was down, my heart was on the ground.”

Plus, there was the fact that at point, Costner wasn’t really a seasoned golfer.

“And then, something in me, what was being said to me made sense,” said Costner, who credits then CAA agent Jane Sindell for finally convincing him. “And I agreed to go do it. And it was literally one of the best things I ever did in my life, was to go off with Ron and make Tin Cup.”

Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson at the movie premiere of "Tin Cup."

Albert Ortega

The rest of the cast came together much easier. Well, except for the part of David Simms. Alec Baldwin had originally accepted the role as Tin Cup’s smarmy PGA Tour star rival, but he called Shelton to pull out just three weeks before shooting because then wife Kim Basinger was having some pregnancy issues.

That caused a bit of a scramble to fill the role and Shelton narrowed in on two other candidates: Tom Selleck and Don Johnson. But when Selleck couldn’t meet, he offered Johnson the part within five minutes.

But there was another job that proved to be just as important. And it didn’t go to an actor.

• • • • •

How do you make a golf movie authentic? You start by hiring an authentic golfer.

It certainly helped that Shelton, Foser, and Norville, who played college golf at Stanford, were avid players, but they knew they needed an actual tour pro to properly bring the tournament-related scenes to life. Gary McCord became that guy, and he was officially brought aboard as a consultant. Never a winner on the PGA Tour and already transitioning into his broadcasting career, McCord also fit the irreverent vibe Shelton craved.

“We wanted to make a golf movie, not for the elite golf audience, but for everyone. Blue collar component of golf was important for this story and us, part of the thematic of the film. Gary represented that. Never won a golf tournament, hilarious,” Foster said. “And at the time he was partnered with Peter Kostis and they had those golf schools and obviously Peter is an incredible teacher. And we thought between those two we had a base of knowledge and a network we could utilize to reach out.”

Not that he was doing it for blue-collar wages. McCord took a mighty swing himself with a salary demand of a quarter million dollars—and couldn’t believe it when he got what he asked for. A quarter century later he still gets a kick out of telling people he was the highest-paid movie consultant in Hollywood at the time.

“I said, ‘Why me?’” McCord said of his initial chat with Shelton. “He goes, ‘Well, No. 1, you got kicked out of Augusta. No. 2, I just like your bullshit.’”

But Shelton also liked McCord’s stories. So much so that he took two things that happened during McCord’s career—a par-5 meltdown and a bar bet involving a pelican—and turned them into two of the movie’s pivotal parts. And McCord earned that consultant money by also playing the role of a producer, actor, and even babysitter.

“(Former Masters champion Craig) Stadler got arrested once in Tucson for driving his golf cart and three guys to go down to the 7/11 and get a case of beer and they’re not really supposed to be driving drunker than hell,” McCord recalls. “So it was like that.”

McCord was also the mastermind behind all those PGA Tour cameos, from Stadler to Phil Mickelson. When the film's budget wouldn't cover the appearance fees they were asking, he set up a dinner with Costner and Don Johnson with the players' significant others and they quickly agreed to do it for scale.

Gary McCord, who Jim Nantz calls "the lynchpin" that brought the movie and CBS crews together for "Tin Cup."

Stan Badz

There was plenty more that went into making the film feel authentic, from signing sponsors for the fictional golfers to building out a TV tower that replicated the one at actual PGA Tour events to even bringing in the USGA to help get the courses in U.S. Open shape. And again, there were a lot of tales from the tour woven throughout.

“In essence, all the stuff was real that we did based on idiots like myself,” McCord said. “You had a lot of Trevino in there. A lot of Titanic Thompson with the hitting the ball down the road, stuff like that. So it was based on real stuff that golfers did, and it was just a fun movie.”

Is “Tin Cup” a perfect movie? Of course not. Are there unrealistic parts? Of course there are—from McAvoy’s 3-wood spinning so much to Peter Jacobsen winning a major. Sorry, Jake. But Shelton has a message for those nitpicking.

“Relax, folks. This is the most authentic golf movie you’ll ever see, whether you like it or not,” he said. “I mean, it is. We really looked hard at that. How do you stand, how do you put a tee in the ground. How do you stand. To Kevin, how do you stand when another guy is putting? There are ways. He’d make a long putt and he’d tend to raise the putter with his right hand and McCord would go, ‘No! Nobody raises it with their right hand!’ Things like that were very important.”

McCord and Kostis also put a lot of work into making sure Kevin had a swing that would hold up under scrutiny from golfers watching. At the time, the actor estimated he had only played about a dozen rounds in his life, and he wasn’t particularly keen on completely changing his swing at first.

To cover his bases, Shelton wrote Costner’s new three-quarter swing into the script. And it was easier to speed up in post production than the actor’s longer, more languid original move. Costner made clear from the beginning that he didn’t want a stunt double and that he intended to hit all the shots. And that he did, even pulling off a bunker shot with a garden hoe that McCord couldn’t do with hours of attempts.

McCord praised Costner’s athletic ability and called him a “parrot” for how quickly he was able to mimic various moves. That included hitting a flop shot, and even being able to shank a golf ball on cue. But the actor also practiced a lot and it showed. According to McCord, Costner improved enough to shoot even par a couple times during filming.

Jim Nantz, who played himself in the movie, wrote a Golf Digest column last year chronicling his involvement with the film. He remembers a special week in Akron, Ohio for the 1995 World Series of Golf, a year before the movie came out. If “Tin Cup” had been born on a golf course, its development began in earnest at a golf tournament.

“It was kind of a boot camp scenario for Kevin,” Nantz recalls. “He was being trained by two brilliant teachers in Kostis and McCord. And in the afternoons, they were coming over to Firestone and watching a really high quality tour event with a gathering of the world’s best. And at night, of course, there were team dinners and all of us were going out and having a big time of it. And the excitement was beginning to build about this movie that somehow we all were able to contribute in a few small ways to making a great film.”

• • • • •

But Nantz and the rest of the CBS Golf crew wound up having a major impact on how “Tin Cup’s” U.S. Open story is told. Although Shelton says he did less tinkering to this script than perhaps any other in his career, that big alteration was made after he spent time in the CBS production truck and saw the network’s legendary golf producer, Frank Chirkinian, at work.

Which leads us back to that final big tournament scene that has polarized audiences for more than a quarter century. The hero of the movie has a chance to win the U.S. Open and . . . he makes a 12?

Of course, it’s not just the score, but the way Roy McAvoy makes it. As we discussed, being bold is part of the character’s DNA, but not taking advantage of the rules by going to the drop area is downright reckless.

But once again, it was based on something that actually happened. At the 1986 FedEx St. Jude Classic, McCord dumped five balls in the water in a row on Colonial Country Club’s par-5 16th hole. Like McAvoy, McCord refused to listen to his caddie about going up to the drop area or changing clubs until finally switching from a 4-iron to a 3-iron after being informed he was down to his last golf ball. McCord finally hit the green and then drained a 25-foot putt for a crowd-pleasing 16, which is still one of the highest recorded scores in PGA Tour history.

Of course, that’s a bit different than being on the final hole of a major with a chance to win. And Shelton says he even had to fight to keep that scene as is because there were Hollywood execs who wanted a more, well, Hollywood ending. But he pointed to “Casablanca” as an example of a movie that's more memorable because the audience doesn’t get what it wants. And he’s had to debate it with many people since—including future U.S. President Donald Trump after an early New York screening of the film.

“He didn’t say, ‘How are you? Nice job,’ he said, ‘Let me tell you how you could have made a better movie.’ Honest to God, this is what he said,” Shelton says. “‘You can go into the editing room where they do those things, I know all about those things, and you can redo it so it goes in the hole and he wins. You make a lot more money, it’s a bigger hit.’ And I start to say my speech for all those people who say that. I say, ‘If Humphrey Bogart walks away with Ingrid Bergman,’ he turns around and he walks away with Marla and I never even got to Casablanca. That’s my Donald Trump moment.”

Thankfully, Shelton wouldn’t be swayed on this, and the world got its Tin Cup moment. One that he compares to the ending of another classic sports movie to further convey his point.

“If Rocky Balboa beats Carl Weathers, nobody believes it,” Shelton said. “He goes 15 rounds and it makes the movie work. It’s a fairytale about survival. And in that, it’s a triumph. These are important to me. You can’t win the game and win the girl. You can have one, you can’t have both—which is true in all my movies.”

But none of his other movies involves a climactic scene in which the protagonist does the same thing over and over—and over and over—and over and over again. To pull that off required some cinematic magic—from different viewpoints to different perspectives of other characters witnessing the action.

“You make it interesting in a number of ways,” Shelton explains. “First of all, you shoot the hell out of it. In other words, there are so many camera angles so that you’re never repeating what you saw exactly. And the ball flies into the water in different ways, it rolls back, it does this and it does that. . . . So you have these little things going on to keep it not repetitive.”

That’s not to say it didn’t get repetitive for Costner and those extras in the gallery—most of whom had no clue about the unexpected plot twist.

“I had enough of that hole after a day shooting there,” said Costner Deerwood's 13th hole, which is actually a long par 4. “You know, because there are some people who don’t know the storyline and they go, ‘He’s just not going to get it across there!’ ‘That’s the script, lady. Just stick around and I’m going to hole this thing.’”

• • • • •

A surplus of athletic star power doesn't guarantee a great movie. Just ask anyone who saw "Space Jam 2." You still need a great script, and that’s where longtime golf buddies Shelton and Norville came in. They didn’t only nail those big tournament scenes, but also what makes regular hackers come back to the course every weekend. Just listen to Roy describe the golf swing in a lesson with Molly early in the movie.

It’s moments like those that perfectly capture the average golfer’s obsession with the game. After all, what golfer hasn’t had moments of brilliance when it feels like everything’s clicking only to completely lose it by the next hole? Even Roy McAvoy, a character who openly declares himself a “legendary ball-striker” can become so desperate that he needs to turn to a collection of infomercial swing aids at one point. And to a sports psychologist, for that matter.

So where has it gone wrong for other golf movies? For starters, there’s a lack of authenticity and attention to detail. But Foster believes other films have also remained too loyal to the game instead of focusing on a great story or compelling characters.

He and Shelton consider "Caddyshack" a classic because it was less about golf and more about poking fun at the country club scene. “Tin Cup” aims to be a more balanced portrayal of golf and the PGA Tour, but it’s about much more than that. There are loyal friendships, fierce rivalries, and, yes, a love story.

Let’s be honest, if it was just a movie about a golf pro and not a romantic comedy, the film never would have been No. 1 in the box office. And while “Tin Cup’s” characters aren’t as outrageous as Ty Webb and Judge Smails, they resonate with audiences in their own ways.

“I don’t see Tin Cup as a golf movie. I see Tin Cup as a story about Roy McAvoy and Romeo and David Simms and Molly," Foster says. "Golf is part of it, and we committed ourselves to be as accurate and authentic as we could with the golf. But I would say audiences like it not just for how authentic the golf is, but for the storytelling, the characters, the thematics.”

After all, how realistic is it that a middle-age man working at a driving range could suddenly decide to give serious golf one more try and nearly win a major championship just a few months later? And that he would do something no one in golf history at the time had ever done: Shoot 62 in a major.

But it seems believable because of how everything is framed—and, yes, in part because of a familiar voice telling that underdog story.

Incredibly, Jim Nantz’s memorable monologue describing McAvoy making history was actually delivered far, far away from the cameras months after filming had ended.

“We did not have a sound-proof booth so I sat in the backseat of my rental car near the CBS truck,” Nantz said. “Gary Foster showed me a clip of McAvoy shooting 62 and said, ‘How would you handle that? What would you say if you were sitting on that moment?’ And basically I just gave him 20 seconds with the historical perspective that, ‘No one had shot 62 in a major, but now the record belongs to Roy McAvoy.’"

• • • • •

Releasing a movie is kind of like hitting a golf shot. A lot of preparation goes into it, but once it leaves your hands, it’s out of your control. Like Foster said, “Tin Cup” did well. But a slightly different timing could have turned it into a true blockbuster.

Although Shelton says the film benefitted a bit from the Tiger effect once it was released internationally, he estimates the box office take would have doubled had the movie been released in August of 1997 instead of 1996. You know, after Woods had won the Masters and set off that golf boom. It so happens “Happy Gilmore,” which was released in February of 1996 and only made about half what “Tin Cup” did, just missed the Tiger bump as well.

That being said, money isn’t the only way a movie’s success is measured by—especially one that came out a quarter century ago. For those, there’s a more important question: Does it stand up over time?

While "Tin Cup" never quite reached Oscar-level status with critics, I was happy to find it just as watchable when I was prepping for this project as it was when I was in high school. And I can confirm it even checks the box for a movie night with the wife. Although, I had to hide that I was getting choked up when McAvoy finally holes that 3-wood, the crowd goes crazy, and the CBS crew is in disbelief, all to the stirring score by William Ross cranks up. Gets me every time.

Yes, there’s a part of me that always wants McAvoy to play it safe on that final hole, but that’s not the point. And perhaps no one understands that better than someone who has played golf at the highest level.

“I think there’s a lot of us on the tour that saw us in him,” McCord said. “We didn’t try to make fun of the game or anything, we made fun of ourselves and our ability to withstand this bombardment of negative reaction for our whole entire life and try to produce something positive. I mean, it’s a perfect movie for that. Because you knew at the end he was going to screw up. He always screwed up. And we all know we’ve screwed up and we’re going to do it at the end when it counts the most.”

McCord’s own Tin Cup moment a decade before wound up being one of the most memorable sports scenes in cinematic history. But obviously those involved with the movie, including the Hollywood star it helped heal, will remember a lot more than that.

“It was a lot of fun . . . And Don (Johnson) made it fun for me. I’ll never forget him, because he made it fun for me,” Costner said. “And he’s a protective guy and therefore, I was protective of him. And the guy who made it all work was Shelton, because he’s protective of both of us. . . . He loves his players like a manager loves his players. He’ll get thrown out of a game to raise my game.”

Nantz recalls Costner trying to raise his game as an actor. And he says the team effort helped create many lasting friendships—in addition to a lasting movie.

“You know, it’s been 25 years, but in many ways, the memories are so vivid it feels like it was a couple weeks ago,” Nantz said. “It was easily one of the five favorite things I’ve ever experienced in my career—if you call it part of my job or business. It wasn’t anything like work, obviously. This was just a group of friends getting together, trying to contribute to a film that we knew going in had tremendous potential. And coming out of it, we found out the world loved it—and the world still loves it 25 years later.”

But the world never got to see a “Tin Cup” sequel. Not that one wasn’t discussed. And even written. Shelton and Norville’s “Cup at Q School” would have followed Roy McAvoy as he tried to earn his PGA Tour card. Costner was in, and things got serious enough for Shelton to spend a week at the final stage of the tour’s 2006 qualifying event. But, alas, it never came to fruition. At least, not yet.

“There are moments, there are people you get to work with and you know you’re never going to forget it. And all you do is look for that moment to have it come back again,” Costner said. “And you know when that the moment that the writing matches up with what you believe the most, I can’t wait to get back with Ron again when it all matches up.”

Regardless of whether it happens, the two made an indelible mark on an entire sport. How many movies can say that?

If you’re a golfer, it’s impossible not to know what it means to pull a “Tin Cup.” Heck, you don’t even have to have seen the movie to get some of its references. “Tin Cup” has been a Jeopardy clue multiple times, and has been referenced in TV shows from “Friends” to “Parks & Rec” to “Billions.”

And then there are the more obvious connections. In a video that went viral of Bryson DeChambeau trying to drive the green at the 2021 Ryder Cup, a fan at Whistling Straits shouts, “Let the big dog eat!” It’s just one line Costner uttered in “Tin Cup” 25 years ago—and just one of the movie’s many moments that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

“Revenue aside, and I’m sure Warner’s made some good money, it’s part of the lexicon,” Foster said. “When you talk about golf movies, whether it’s “Caddyshack” or “Tin Cup,” those are really the two and they’re two different kinds of movies. And as long as golf is being played, “Tin Cup” will always be talked about. You can’t ask for any more than that.”