There is a pause on the end of the telephone line as John O’Hurley, breakfasting at home in Los Angeles, considers his answer. The question was a pretty tame one: “What did you make of Phil Mickelson’s win at the Open?”. But it provokes a Pinteresque pause that borders on the Beckettian silence.
There is a lengthy intake of breath as the 58-year-old actor replays that astonishing final round at Muirfield last month in his head. Mickelson, five shots down at the start of the day, blazed a final round of 66, birdying four of the last six holes to win the old claret jug by three strokes.
“It was truly amazing,” he says finally.
“That was such an angry course and he was totally the master. It was probably one of the all-time great rounds. And you know, Mickelson is such a good guy, when he flew home his first stop was at the Callaway factory so that all the employees could touch the claret jug and get their picture taken.
“That was a touch of class. But golf does that. Funny thing is that if you put that in a movie script people wouldn’t believe it, they would say it was too contrived. ”
Golf and the movies. There have been plenty of occasions where the two have met from Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike and Fred Astaire’s remarkable tap/swing combination in Carefree to more modern movies such as Tin Cup, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Golf in the Kingdom.
And now O’Hurley, who is best known to international audiences for his role of J. Peterman in the television comedy series Seinfeld, finds himself preparing to add his name to those actors who have allowed their game to be committed to celluloid as he takes on the role of the villain in the Crete-set romantic comedy Swing Away.
“I did an event at the Waldorf Astoria to mark 125th anniversary of the Saint Andrews club in Hudson and I met (creative producer) George (Stephanopoulos).
“He is a very persuasive man. I read the script and liked it very much. It was well-written and had a nice tone.
“I was very taken with the idea of the lead being a female pro and not a young kid but what you might call a grizzled old vet. I love the idea of her walking over and decking someone in the gallery.
“It has a Local Hero kind of feel to it. It is about the gentility of life. Golf has a spirituality to it which is capable of transforming lives and that is something that comes through in the script.”
That script has come courtesy of the Greek-American Paul Lingas and the comedy veteran Steven Kampmann who is slated to direct. It concerns Nikki, a pro on the women’s golf tour who is suspended for hitting a spectator. To escape the media backlash she hops on a flight to Crete to visit her grandparents and rediscover her mojo in both golf and life.
The climax features a golfing shoot-out that pits the villainous anti-hero played by O’Hurley against…well that would be telling just a bit too much.
The original villain was to be a German but with O’Hurley coming on board that now looks likely to change to an American.
“It gives a better box office value and I think a deeper sense of black comedy,” says O’Hurley who admits that he is something of a stickler when it comes to golfing credibility.
“You have to try and attract the golfing audience and to do that you have to be credible. You can’t have a top golfer with a lousy swing, it would be like putting John Candy in a martial arts film.”
In O’Hurley’s view Joel Gretsch (a five handicapper) produced perhaps the most authentic screen swing when he played Bobby Jones in The Legend of Bagger Vance while Kevin Costner struggled for credibility in Tin Cup.
He is confident, though, that his own game will stand up to the scrutiny of a big screen audience.
“My own swing is pretty easy, somewhere between Fred Couples and Ernie Els. I am six feet four with a long extension. And my putting is pretty good at the moment. I am just off the NBC golf championships and I putted well. “
“I play off five but I doubt I will get any better; there is quite a chasm between five and scratch. “
THE POWER OF GOLF
O’Hurley is one of those actors whose face and voice are better known than their name. He has worked in sitcoms, done voiceovers (notably as King Neptune in SpongeBob SquarePants), he spent several years hosting Family Feud in the US, he has worked on Broadway, he reached the 2005 final of Dancing with the Stars and composes music for the piano, releasing an album with the cellist Marston Smith.
Throughout all that, golf has been at his side, not just as a form of leisure but as a measure of life.
“Golf has been a big part of my life since I was a child,“ he says.
“When I was young it was a valuable chance for me to spend four hours with my father. He is 85 now and he sees it as a chance to spend four hours with his son.
“Now my own son is six now so I hope this is something we will share for some years to come.
O’Hurley also happened to meet and woo his wife Lisa on the golf course – at the Phoenix Open in 2003.
“Our first date was on a golf course. When I saw her club it 250 yards down the middle of the fairway, I went ‘wow, this is a hell of a date’. We became close friends, so close we got married.
“She also plays off five but she will improve I am sure. When you are not looking she come through with a 68.“
O’Hurley has also worked closely with the PGA, hosting events, and with the NBC as a guest analyst. He also hosts two charity events in Samonas and Palm Springs which raise millions of dollars for Child Help and Golfers Against Cancer.
He also also produced a number of comedy golfing informercials including Waist Water Golf Pants, Rangé Balls and The Secret to Golf. All of which suggests that this actor is ready to swing away in Greece.
©Barney Spender 2013