ESPN 30 for 30: Hit It Hard (2016)

Directed by Gabe Spitzer & David Terry Fine

Golf is not exactly the most exhilarating sport, that much I will admit. I personally love the sport, but I also concede that watching it on television can be a bore, and even following it on the course can be a snooze. It is a slow, long sport where non-athletic people are capable of winning. If you go to your neighborhood course for a weekend round you could be gone all day. To me that is the beauty of the sport, however. The ability for a common fan to be able to play at varying levels and still gain joy from the misery that is golf at times. It’s a great way to kill time and spend it walking around green spaces in fresh air. Of course, the sport also has its snobby side. The country club side where golfers are rich elitists with a long list of proper etiquette and definitions of what a traditional golfer looks like, sounds like and plays like. This is what made John Daly such an attractive anti-hero when he crashed the party in the 1990s. He was just a regular dude who liked to smoke, drink, and hit it hard.

Daly’s story is one of the more unique in the history of sports, particularly golf. He rose to quick fame in 1991 when, as a last minute add as an alternate, he managed to win the PGA Championship, one of the sports four major championships. He went from out of the tournament to winning the title, millions of dollars, and instant fame in the blink of an eye. Like his golfing ability, though, his personal life was just as up and down. Daly soon took to the bottle and became unable to handle the fame and pressure of performing on the golf course. After hitting rock bottom and checking into rehab, many thought his career was over, until of course he managed to come back and win the British Open in 1995 in dramatic fashion. Down, but never out, John Daly continues to tour, and he continues to be himself. His is easily one of the most unique tales in golf history.

The 30 for 30 series is chock full of incredible stories. However, there have been a few instances where I felt like the film could have been even longer and full of detail. Hit It Hard is just such a film. At just 50 minutes, it is one of the shorter installments in the series, and as a result it feels very stunted, just scratching the surface of the details to John Daly’s life. As a fan of the game of golf, and someone at least superficially familiar with Daly’s story, I was able to jump right in, but someone with less background knowledge of the subject and his accolades may find the film to be bereft of character defining details. The highlights are there, but that does not make a good documentary. A good documentary delves into the details and paints a fuller picture.

I did appreciate the directors, Gabe Spitzer and David Terry Fine, interviewing Daly himself and not shying away from portraying the alcohol abuse and domestic issues that have arisen in Daly’s past. These details are essential to understanding Daly as a man, and as a major figure in the sport of golf over that time. It still feels incomplete when telling his story from cradle to grave, and maybe they weren’t intending on telling that story, but there wasn’t even laser focus on one aspect or time period to be able to grasp onto and tag along for the ride. John Daly is a larger than life character, yet someone so down to earth and “of the people” that it is easy to see how he might have garnered so much attention and fan support. In some ways he reminds me a little of Bubba Watson today, though in different ways.

What the film does get right is its treatment of its subject, John Daly. Daly has had his troubles, and many of them. As I mentioned he is a larger than life character. So it would be very easy for this film to somehow celebrate Daly for his misgivings, or even to vilify him. It would have been wrong to do this. In presenting Daly as he is, in a very subdued, soft, and reflective manner, the audience, along with Daly, are able to consider his issues and successes in a different light: Daly’s. Spitzer and Fine make Daly sympathetic without making us pity him. It’s a very fine line to walk, but Spitzer and Fine do it marvelously, bringing out the most human aspects of John Daly’s story. I only wish we could have gotten much more.

*** – Good

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