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Playing for par Story of 1913 Open unfolds like a long walk in the park

Disney would like folks to think that "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is in the same league of inspirational sports movies as "Remember the Titans," "Miracle" and "The Rookie."

Like those movies, it's based on an inspiring true story -- the surprise victory of 20-year-old American golf amateur Francis Ouimet over British champion Harry Vardon in the 1913 U.S. Open. The "greatest game" of the title, though, is not football, hockey or baseball. Can the glacial pace of the game of golf produce a riveting movie -- when the sports action is limited to a solitary soul swinging a club and a tiny ball rolling slowly toward a tiny hole?

"The Greatest Game" -- directed by Bill Paxton from a screenplay by Mark Frost, who wrote the 2002 book of the same title -- is utterly predictable, sometimes sappily sentimental and still very entertaining thanks to the quiet grace displayed by its everyman heroes, Stephen Dillane as Harry Vardon and Shia LaBeouf as Ouimet.

Ouimet came from a working-class background, but so did Vardon (he worked as a gardener for a gentleman who liked golf). Thus, the drama in the story comes less from the competition between the 20-year-old Yank and the 43-year-old Brit, than from the two of them celebrating a love of the game despite the snobs who control the clubs where golf is played both here and across the pond.

The economic realities of class add depth and appeal to the film even as it goes overboard to make the point. (Ouimet's snarling French-born father, played by Elias Koteas, is suspicious of his son's interest in a rich man's game; Vardon is haunted by images of the black-hatted villains who evicted his family from their home on the Isle of Jersey to build a golf course.)

Dillane turns in a fine performance as Vardon; LaBeouf brings a doe-eyed intensity to Ouimet. Kids who may be squirming in their seats during the often plodding first half will thoroughly enjoy the movie after pudgy Josh Flitter shows up as Ouimet's 10-year-old caddie toting a golf bag that's bigger than he is.

Paxton wisely saves the stroke-by-stroke action for the finale (using zoom shots and other camera tricks to depict the style of individual players). And since such pains have been taken to make both Ouimet and Vardon sympathetic characters, the playoff round is more interesting than it would be in a "Rocky" story of an underdog knocking out a villainous lunk.

THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

e-mail: jwestmoore@buffnews.com

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