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Actor Lucas Black feels right at home on the (driving) range

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Anyone with a trained eye can tell you after watching just a few scenes from "Seven Days in Utopia" that Lucas Black knows his way around a golf course.

The 28-year-old Alabama native who now lives in Missouri has a fluid, powerful and compact swing cultivated during 12 years of committed practice. He might not be one of the most famous actors who enjoys the game — you likely won't see him clowning around at Pebble Beach with Bill Murray or George Lopez — but, with a scratch handicap, he is probably one of the best.

He hits a straight ball, but he drawls as he talks about his passion for the game. And for those who question the classification of golf as a sport, Black offers a knowing chuckle that carries a hint of a sneer.

"They're blind. They need to open their eyes," Black said. "It's the hardest sport I've ever played, for sure. I played basketball, baseball, football and golf. With golf, it's just you out there. You don't have anybody else to rely on. To be able to play it well, you've got to come prepared every single time you step on the golf course, focused and ready to play, or else you're not going to play good."

Luke Chisholm, Black's character in "Utopia," lacks that steel at the beginning of the film, suffering a catastrophic meltdown that leads to his withdrawing from an important tournament and a fracturing of the relationship between him and his father. A car accident strands the mercurial golfer near the Texas town of Utopia, where he meets Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), a sagacious cowboy with a tumultuous golf and personal history of his own.

The movie is based on the book "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia," written by Baylor University graduate David L. Cook, who holds a doctorate in sport and performance psychology and has worked with an array of professional athletes. When he learned "Utopia" had been developed into a screenplay, Black, who had been a fan of Cook's book that blends self-help, spirituality and golf, called the author and executive producer in hopes of participating.

Having recently worked with Duvall on the indie drama "Get Low," Black contacted the legendary actor, looking for feedback on the project. He ended up getting a co-star.

The film, shot in Fredericksburg and Utopia, returned Black to familiar ground — he shot "All the Pretty Horses" and the "Friday Night Lights" movie in the Lone Star State — and also gave him his third opportunity to work with Duvall.

The two actors, who both appeared in 1996's "Slingblade," though did not share a scene, established a relationship on the Georgia shoot of "Get Low," which co-starred Murray and Sissy Spacek. But Black says the less intense "Utopia" allowed the men a more casual environment in which to strengthen their personal connection.

"We actually stayed right next to each other there in Utopia. They had a pool and a big ranch. You could drive around and look at exotic animals on the farm, so we got to spend a lot of time together just riding around, hanging out at the pool, just shooting the bull," Black said. "It definitely helped to be comfortable around someone like Robert Duvall, especially with him being my mentor for my character, taking lessons from him as far as in life and in golf. You kind of got to have that bond in that relationship to hopefully come off reasonably well."

In order to teach Chisholm harmony, tranquility and the secret to playing the "game in front of the ball," Crawford puts the hotshot golfer through an intensive course of self-discovery that includes painting, fly-fishing and visualization. Think an avuncular Yoda in cowboy boots.

The community also rallies around Chisholm on his road to redemption, and those who were initially strangers form a measure of support and a safety net generally reserved for families.

The fictional culture resembled that which Black encountered during his time in Texas.

"It was a great laid-back Southern feel," said of the six-week shoot. "It kind of reminded me of being home in Alabama, really. It's definitely a different way of life. You can tell those people are usually content with where they are in life and what they have. In my opinion, most of (them have) got their priorities straight with family, friends and God."

God indeed has an ambiguous but pervasive presence in "Utopia." The film begins with a verse from the book of Isaiah, and Chisholm learns to take strength in his newfound faith as he rebuilds his confidence. At times the movie feels like Sunday-school-lesson-as-entertainment.

Black recognizes that religion can be a touchy subject for a film, but he believes "Utopia" stays true to the message of Cook's book without coming across as preachy.

"I think it keeps it pretty open to the individual to decide how they want to take it," Black said. "That was part of the story and ... we all thought (it) was a beautiful part of the story and held a lot of emotion, so it was definitely needed in the movie."

The movie also required more than a few well-executed golf shots. Black, who has never been a fan of CGI in golf movies, says he was probably more concerned than anyone on set with the authenticity of the on-course action.

The amateur athlete took great pride in making sure that each putt that dropped into the cup came off the face of his putter, every smashed drive a Black original.

For the man who has played in dozens of competitive amateur tournaments during the past four years, the chance to perform under pressure offered a unique thrill. And while sharing screen time with a titan like Duvall would make him the envy of any young actor, Black's voice becomes most animated when he talks about the opportunity to meet and hit balls with some of the professional golfers featured in "Utopia," such as the film's "villain," played by PGA Tour pro K.J .Choi.

"K.J.'s got a great personality. Seeing him on TV and in those golf tournaments, that intense focus he has, you really wouldn't think that he had a huge sense of humor and big personality, but he does," Black said. "We really enjoyed talking golf. It was just cool to be able to hit golf shots with those guys. As a golfer and a competitor I'm always trying to measure my game up to every other player, so to measure it against the best players in the world, it was fun. The first time K.J. saw me swing, we get through with a take and he comes up to me and says, 'You long hitter.' That made me feel pretty good."

Black says he has no immediate plans for his next film. But that sounds like it's probably fine with him. It just means more time on the range, working on his game.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986