"Happy Gilmore" is a comedy that's a golf tragedy -- but we love it
Featured Golf Culture

“Happy Gilmore” is a comedy that’s a golf tragedy — but we love it

Imagine James Lipton sitting inside the actor's studio, describing one of the game's best-known films.

The hero: a hockey-player-turned-golfer.

His equipment: seven hickory-shafted clubs.

His mission: make enough money to save his grandmother's house.

On Feb. 16, 1996, one of the great golf films of all-time -- OK, one of a relative few golf films ever made -- landed in theaters. Adam Sandler had just left "Saturday Night Live" in 1995, trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood instead of at 30 Rock.

So, off the modest success of his first feature "Billy Madison" and backed by Universal Pictures with a budget of around $12,000,000, he set off for British Columbia, Canada and shot "Happy Gilmore."

The tight, eight-week shoot weaved throughout the province in six different towns. All of the golf action was filmed in and around Pitt Meadows. Specifically, three courses and a driving range are featured in the movie.

Gilmore gets his start golfing at Meadows Golf Centre, named Waterbury in the movie. The two-tiered driving range is where Gilmore starts hustling his golf skills for money, using his prodigious length with his grandfather's "antique," hickory-shafted golf clubs to somehow routinely mash the golf ball 400 yards. That's where Chubbs Peterson putts down his copy of Golf Digest -- in the middle of giving a golf lesson -- to convince Gilmore to take up the game and compete in the Waterbury Open. Chubbs explains that if Gilmore wins, he automatically is given a spot on the Pro Golf Tour, with a chance to win the big bucks he needs to save his grandmother's house from auction by the IRS.

Then the action shifts to Swan-e-set Bay Resort and Golf Club -- the backdrop for a lot of the tournament shots, including the Waterbury Open and AT&T Invitational.

The resort's clubhouse figures prominently in all those scenes; maybe because it's a 65,000 sq. ft. behemoth of a clubhouse.

Swan-e-set is a 36-hole facility, separated into the Bay Resort and Links courses. The Bay Resort course plays exactly 7,000 yards from the tips, with the Links course 126 yards longer.

Both are designed by Lee Trevino, who makes several cameos throughout the film, always disgusted by Gilmore's crude behavior. It's a safe wager that Sandler had no clue about that incidental connection. Maybe Trevino didn't either. In May 2013, he said he regretted his appearance in the movie because of all the cussing in it.

Green fees at Swan-e-set are never more than $65 Canadian, even in prime season. Pull carts are free, while cart rental is $18 per person.But, according to Swan-e-set Director of Golf Tim Fuchihara, the resort's place in the film doesn't attract much traffic.

"From time to time a golfer may ask about the filming of 'Happy Gilmore,'" Fuchihara said in an email. "The clubhouse is very noticeable throughout the film, and golfers do recognize these scenes. However, I do not know if people come to visit out of curiosity to see the backdrop for a lot of the film."

Perhaps the movie's most memorable scene, however, doesn't happen at Swan-e-set. It takes place at Furry Creek, where the supposed Pepsi Pro-Am pairs Gilmore and "The Price is Right" host Bob Barker in "San Francisco" -- a play on the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Close enough. Anyhow, the site of their epic fight is the ninth hole.

Furry Creek is so proud of their association with the movie, they renamed the 325-yard par 4 as "Happy's Hole." Appearing in the movie was great publicity for the course dubbed the most scenic in British Columbia. It had opened only three years earlier in 1993.


Turns out Furry Creek is a bit more expensive than Swan-e-set. In peak season, the daily green fee is $99.

The movie ends with the Tour Championship -- the final showdown between Sandler's Gilmore and the tour's best player, Shooter McGavin, as played by Christopher McDonald.

The last hole is a par 3, where McGavin makes an incredible up-and-down for par after hitting his tee shot so far offline that it lands on a spectator's foot. That spectator is a former boss of Gilmore's, Mr. Larson, who was accidentally shot in the head by Gilmore on a construction site with a nail gun. Larson, however, has it in for the off-putting McGavin.

Turns out, that hole is completely fictional. While it was shot at Seymour Golf and Country Club, the film crew shot the scenes in three different locations on the property. They constructed a temporary green for the final scene so the TV tower struck by a Volkswagen Beetle driven by a crazed McGavin fan (the "...you jackass!" guy) could tumble on the green without damaging the actual golf course. It's obvious from filming that the tee for the closing hole was (a) fashioned out of the fairway of another hole on the course and (b) put in a terrible place.

Before they play the 18th hole, however, Pro Golf Tour commissioner Doug Thompson appears on the tee to describe the hole and how a playoff would be administered. Turns out the commish is played by actor Dennis Dugan, who is also the director of the film.

Dugan could probably be held responsible for the utter lack of golf knowledge that is pervasive through the film. Here are just a few examples of golf naivety:

  • Every time someone makes contact with the ball during the movie, it always sounds like they're swinging a metal driver -- and Gilmore uses persimmon woods.
  • The Waterbury driving range has a 400-yard sign. Unless it's the World Long-Driving Championship, that never happens.
  • Simply winning the Waterbury Open, a random 18-hole tournament, lands a spot on the Pro Golf Tour? Given the change in Q-school by the PGA Tour, that seems more far-fetched than ever, but it's probably an ode to the Monday qualifier.
  • Chubbs calls time-out after Happy whiffs on his first shot at the Waterbury Open. There's no time-out in golf and no second caddie.
  • On the final hole at Waterbury, Gilmore has four putts to win. Chubbs is on the green with Happy, talking him through the whole process. That's not allowed.
  • Early in the film, McGavin's caddie suggests he use a 5-iron to chip. Then the caddie steps forward, ahead of McGavin, as he prepares to chip.
  • That caddie gets fired immediately, but doesn't leave, instead caddying for McGavin all the way to the win. Except he doesn't tend the flag on 18. What?
  • In the Tour Championship, the first green changes between rounds.
  • Somehow a Volkswagen Beetle gets on the golf course.
  • In the final round of the Tour Championship, Gilmore makes at least a quadruple bogey on a hole but only drops one shot on the leaderboard.
  • Happy makes the same putt twice in his comeback montage.
  • On the 14th hole, McGavin cold tops one into the water. Wait, 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson routinely shanks the ball and still is a major champion. Oh, and McGavin doesn't lose a shot. Hell of a par.
  • On the final hole of the Tour Championship, Shooter McGavin would get a drop from Mr. Larson's foot on the last hole.
  • Fans are standing in the bunkers. Then again, they did that incidentally all week at the '10 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
  • Of course, the obstruction created by the TV tower falling on the last hole could be removed, but then we'd be denied the geometric feat of Gilmore's final putt.

Nevertheless, the movie remains more than relevant today. Plenty of golfers quote the lines from the movie -- even unwittingly -- and a number of scenes from the movie turn out to be prescient.

Subway, Buick, Scotts, Pepsi and O'Doul's also have product placement in the movie. AT&T, Michelob, Visa and Bell Atlantic turn out to be title sponsors of some of the 10 tournaments in the movie. The title sponsors all have brand-appropriate tee markers, too, which was an idea ahead of its time.

In fact, a lot of golf brands had signage in the film: Top Flite, Golf Digest, Taylor Made, Wilson, Cobra Golf and Odyssey Golf (which sold replicas of the putter Chubbs gave as a gift to Gilmore).

Just two weeks ago, the European Tour invited its players at the Scottish Open to try the Happy Gilmore shot. Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington may be the best in the world at it. The now-reigning Open champion, Phil Mickelson, even participated.

Verne Lundquist, playing himself, is the play-by-play man for the movie. (Alongside him in the booth is a guy named "Jack Beard," played by a guy simply called "Fat Jack." He never speaks.) Lundquist is on the call as Gilmore hits a shot that goes beyond the hole, then comes back down the hill, all the way into the cup. It's awfully similar to the chip Tiger Woods hit on the par-3 16th in the final round of the 2005 Masters.

Lundquist calls Gilmore's shot like this: "Hold it. Hold it. Noooooo!"

The end of his call of Woods' shot goes like this: "Now, here it comes. Oh. My. Goodness. ::Pause:: Oh! Wow! In your life have you seen anything like that?!"

In a Q&A with Ed Sherman, Lundquist jokingly credited the movie with his legend among the younger set.

"I think (appearing in) 'Happy Gilmore' is the gift that keeps on giving," he said. "I’m being factious, but something like that accidentally kept me viable with the college kid crowd."

In the movie, the Tour Championship now ends on a par 3. On the PGA Tour, it does now, too, at East Lake in Atlanta, though it didn't in 1996 when Tom Lehman won it.

A year after the movie premiered, John Daly stopped by Swan-e-set. While he was once thought to be an inspiration for Gilmore's character, he wasn't. Nevertheless, Daly was a part of the West Coast Golf Classic, alongside Peter Jacobson and a host of others, including Brandel Chamblee.

Speaking of Chamblee, The Golf Channel (back when it still had an article in its official name) had significant bannering and signage throughout the movie. The network was 13 months, 1 day old when the movie landed in theaters.

And, perhaps most amazing of all, a Nova Scotia judge ruled in 2009 that the Happy Gilmore swing is actually a "breach of care" on the golf course, meaning that no one should use it.

"Happy Gilmore" is a terrible golf movie. The plot is hardly feasible. The details are wrong. But every time it's on TV, we watch it.

Why? Director Dennis Dugan may have put it best, saying, "If you like golf, you'll get a kick out of (the movie) because we break some major rules."

About the author


Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

Ryan occasionally links to merchants of his choosing, and GNN may earn a commission from sales generated by those links. See more in GNN's affiliate disclosure.


Click here to post a comment