"The Greatest Game Ever Played" tries so hard to be The Greatest Movie Ever Directed it almost drives you to distraction.

The story was so strong, you wonder, why did the director, actor Bill Paxton, kill it to death and then wrap a four-iron around the corpse's neck with so many overwrought stratagems? Did we have to ride every putt into the hole courtesy of computer imagery in his re-creation of the 1913 U.S. Open? I felt like Slim Pickens at the end of "Dr. Strangelove"!

Whether or not you agree that young amateur Francis Ouimet's playoff win in that event over two stalwart British pros, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, was the greatest game ever played -- I'd take San Diego over Miami, 41 to 38 in that overtime divisional playoff in 1982 -- you have to say it was extraordinary. Just a few weeks before the match, 19-year-old Ouimet had been a sporting goods salesman; he barely qualified to make the tournament.

But Paxton, with a script from Mark Frost (based on Frost's book), can't let the superb performances (by Shia LaBeouf as Ouimet and Stephen Dillane as Vardon) carry the story. Everything is teased, tricked and forced; then the music is pumped up until finally it's not a sporting event, it's a battle between God's squads, Valhalla vs. Heaven or Nirvana vs. Paradise.

The game and the actors were enough to tell the story; the excess is wretched. Golf, played well, is too elegant a sport for bombast.

-- Stephen Hunter