By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3

LOS ANGELES -- Shia LaBeouf probably isn't the first, second or third name that comes up when casting agents are looking for someone to play an athlete in a major motion picture. He's more cerebral than sporty and more boyish than buff. But when directors are looking for a young seamless actor to appear in a strong character-driven project, LaBeouf's name is probably on top of everyone's list. His filmography includes "I, Robot" (2004) and "Constantine" (2005, playing alongside Keanu Reeves).

Shia Lebeouf
Before Tiger Woods, there was Francis Ouimet (Shia Lebeouf), the first greatest golf hero.
LaBeouf more than proves he was the right choice to play Francis Ouimet, a working-class immigrant kid who defied the odds to become this country's first celebrated golf hero in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (which opens Sept. 30).

The film masterfully chronicles Ouimet's journey from public courses to the 1913 U.S. Open, where he upset Harry Vardon -- a former U.S. Open winner and six-time British Open champ -- in one of the game's most stunning and inspirational battles.

LaBeouf talked about his role, his fondness for the sport, and the impact Ouimet had on golf and America during a recent interview.

1. What was it about this film that appealed to you?

Shia LaBeouf: Francis. Francis was the whole appeal of the movie. Golf was secondary, it could have been Frisbee. Francis was just an amazing human being. You look back in 1913 and there was a surplus of immigrants coming into the country, and they had no hero. There was this void. Francis happened to have a dream that was directed right to that void without him knowing it. He didn't know that he was going to become this hero.

2. What was Francis' real impact on the game and the country?

There was no such thing as a professional athlete in this heroic sense. There was an occupation, and Francis changed that because there was emotion behind it. The country was emotional about his win. He was a face, a face you could put on a class of people. He created a middle class in America. It's way beyond golf. There was no such thing as public courses before Francis started playing. It was a rich man's hobby. After he started playing, they created municipal courses and it became a public sport. Soccer has yet to break through to America because there's no Francis for soccer. Who is it, David Beckham? He's married to a Spice Girl! That's not Francis. Francis was a man. He was honorable. Francis was a family man. He had integrity. He was shy. He wasn't the poster boy for any sport that you could ever think of. He never even went pro.

3. How do you think this ranks among some of the better sports films?

This isn't the regular type of Disney sports film. You go watch "Miracle" or "Remember the Titans," yes. Larry King said it was better than "Seabiscuit." Nobody left "Seabiscuit" saying what a great horse film. Nobody is walking out of the screenings of this film saying what a great golf movie. Bill Clinton said it ['The Greatest Game Ever Played'] was his favorite movie ever. George Bush Sr. handwrote a note to the head of publicity at Disney saying it was his favorite film and that he would love to help.

The reality of it is that in sports films, this is how the story line breaks down: You have your hero who's not really doing good in school or he's the bad guy -- the underdog. His dream is to win. And then you have an opposition who is vilified in the movie to make the stakes high. It's not the regular type of sports film, it's not the regular type of film.

4. Do you enjoy watching golf on TV?

I don't know if you've ever watched golf on television, but whether you like the game or not, it's the people who are intriguing. You sit there and watch these guys who have these six-inch putts to make. And if they make the putt their life is changing for the better -- everything is great. If they wind up missing the putts they don't scream or pull a Jeremy Shockey and go crazy, punch a wall. They take their hat off, they smile at the audience and put their hat back on. That's a cowboy, that's not a golfer. In your mind, you know they're crying and they're screaming and they're losing it, but they won't show it.

5. Did you all set out to make the definitive golf movie?

Shia Lebeouf and Bill Paxton
Actor Shia Lebeouf and Director Bill Paxton on the set of "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
Bill Paxton said we're not making "Bagger Vance," we're making "Tombstone." We showed up to make the quintessential golf film because up to this point, the quintessential golf film had never been made. What is it, "Happy Gilmore," "Caddyshack"? These are all satires of golf. There's never been a golf film made. "Bagger Vance" was them filming golf. We were filming the mind of a golfer. I worked out with the UCLA golf team for a while and asked them what their favorite golf film was -- was it "Bagger Vance" and they said no, we hated "Bagger Vance." I said why, and they said because he wasn't a golfer. You can tell right away from the swing. This wasn't Bernie Mac playing baseball. You can fake that. You can't fake a swing. [Matt Damon] trained for two weeks to get that swing in "Bagger Vance." Jim Caviezel trained for three weeks. I trained for six months!

6. What kinds of things did the guys on the UCLA golf team teach you that you didn't already know?

I learned that there was trash talk and such a thing as golf groupies. I learned this whole different world. It was crazy!

7. What kind of training did you do?

I went to the U.S. Open and shadowed Adam Scott last year, doing seven hours a day, seven days a week. I did virtual training where we would put Francis' swing on this virtual goggle and they would have a camera, and I would try to match the swing for hours in my hotel room. We did calisthenics and yoga training and back exercises. I mean, this was nuts. This wasn't like, let's pick up a club and be an actor today. It didn't go like that. He handed me a club like it was a weapon, not this is a golf club. It was like a gun. It was like I was holding something I could do some damage with. I didn't show up on set like, hey, I'm a duffer, let's go do it -- because I would have hated the movie if I had done that.

8. How is your golf game?

Good enough to look good. Ninety-five percent of the shots in the movie were me. I think there was one shot that was a stunt double. All the swings and whatnot, me. If you were to ask my handicap, I'd say spelling. I don't have a handicap, I'm not that far into it. It was a role. I love golf, the sport now -- the mentality of it. But these people get into golf and they become like golf crackheads! You can't get enough and it's never good and you're never satisfied. It's like, c'mon man, if you're a 12-handicap get some sleep. No man, I've got to be a four! Golf turns people into trolls!

9. Is there any other sport you want to make a movie about?

I surf, that's cool. I'd love to go around surfing in a movie, but it would have to be the right role. That's a form of selling out. Hey, I need a vacation, so let's go shoot this piece of crap in Tahiti. I can't do that. My father would go crazy.

10. What is it that separates you from the rest of the actors your age?

I haven't sold out yet, either, and I think that's a big reason people flame out. I haven't cashed in. I don't know what it is. If I did, I could bottle it up, I could probably sell it. I know what it isn't. It isn't making films that you know are bad. It isn't making movies with a plotline that is garbage just so you can get a $4 million dollar paycheck and live really nice.

Miki Turner is a segment producer for ESPN Hollywood and can be reached at Miki.P.Turner.-ND@espn.com.