Roy McAvoy (Costner), known as "Tin Cup" in his golfing circle, is a former golf prodigy content to spend his days with his pals, drinking and hitting golf balls at the rinky-dink Texas driving range he owns. Years ago, Roy burned his chances at qualifying for the PGA Tour because of his Challenge Seeker tendencies, forgoing safe shots in critical moments for near-impossible ones, trying to set record scores, and flaming out in spectacular fashion.
Roy's easy-going life is turned around when beautiful psychologist Molly Griswold (Russo) comes in looking for golf lessons. Roy attempts to put the moves on her until he finds out she's already dating his long-time hated rival from college, David Simms (Johnson), a top PGA golfer. When Roy embarrasses Simms at a local tournament by effortlessly hitting a difficult shot that David wouldn't attempt, he sees an opportunity to topple his old foe and capture the doctor's heart: qualify for — and win — the upcoming U.S. Open. As Roy starts to carve out an incredible comeback to golfing prominence with best friend/caddy Romeo (Marin) at his side, and begins to win over Molly (working as his sports psychologist), he may finally have a shot at a true defining moment that once escaped him.
Co-written and directed by Ron Shelton, who helmed sports classics Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump; like those two films, Tin Cup was applauded for its intelligent and hilarious take on athletic egos, its well-drawn characters and romance, and wonderfully turning formulaic sports tropes on its head.
This film provides examples of:
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Played with. Molly is eventually won over by handsome slob Roy, who despite his appearance and manner, is a good-hearted fellow, which is the opposite of successful, well-groomed, but all-around asshole David. In addition, part of why she falls for Roy is because she never was with someone who "went for it all", percentages and sensibility be damned.Roy: When's the last time you took a risk?Molly: Well, I'm with you, Roy. I'm with you.
- Balls of Steel: How Roy got the nickname "Tin Cup".
- Cassandra Truth: Molly dismisses Roy's notion that David hates "old people, children, and dogs", feeling it's just sour grapes from Roy. Even when his friends back it up, she still doesn't believe it, until she sees David demonstrate a hatred of all three in one fell swoop (ranting at an autograph-seeking old couple who happen to have a child and dog in tow). This compels her to leave him.
- Catchphrase: Roy likes to casually remark "dollar bills" before a shot as a confidence booster.
- Challenge Seeker: Roy destroyed his chance at becoming a pro golfer when he was younger, going for a record score on the 18th during a PGA qualifier when a par would've sufficed, and ended up holing double-digits. He also can play golf with unconventional clubs (like shovels and pool cues) and loves to show off his skill at trick shots.
- Defiant to the End: Long after he's squandered a chance to win the U.S. Open, Roy is still adamant about hitting the impossible two-shot approach to the green on the 18th hole. After failing in each of the previous three rounds, and down to his last ball in the fourth (putting it in the water would disqualify him from the tournament), he not only reaches the green, he holes out as the crowd goes wild.
- Down to the Last Play: Roy, David, and real-life pro Peter Jacobsen (of future Golden Tee fame) are all in the mix for the championship heading to the 72nd and final hole of the U.S. Open. Roy shoots himself almost out of contention by trying to once again hit an impossible approach to the green instead of laying up, and goes down to his last ball before finally nailing it. Dave, who needs an eagle to win, decides to lay up, giving up on winning just so he doesn't look bad.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: Romeo gets Roy drunk on the eve of the U.S. Open, saying he plays better when he's hung over; Roy shoots an unsightly 83 in the first round.
- Hands-On Approach: Roy does this to Molly during their lessons until David shows up.
- "I Can't Look!" Gesture: David does this during Roy's disastrous effort during the final hole of the U.S. Open., and the commentators lampshade it.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Roy has a knack for this; when he's at his best, he can hit shots that even the best pros think are impossible. However the film also goes out of its way to show that those pros think that way for a reason; Roy really does have to be at his very best to hit those "impossible" shots, and Roy has a tendency to be inconsistent, going from his very best to mediocre in very short periods of time. He has learned the hard way in the past (and does again during the film's climax), that low-percentage shots tend to fail more often than not.
- In-Series Nickname: "Tin Cup". It actually has nothing to do with his golfing acumen; Roy was the catcher on his high school baseball team, which featured a pitcher with a nasty curveball that had a tendency to ricochet off the dirt and into Roy's groin. His teammates thought it was a better nickname than "Clank".
- Latin Lover: Roy's ex-girlfriend Doreen is smitten by Romeo and definitely loves the Latin part of it. In the final scene of the movie, they tango in the office of the driving range.
- Loophole Abuse: As "part of Roy's mental preparation for the U.S. Open" (as David puts it), David accepts Roy's challenge (with Roy betting his car) that he can beat David in any golf-related game of David's choice. David chooses to have each of them hit one shot with Roy's 7-iron, with the objective being to hit the longer shot. Roy's shot is impressive ("237. Toed it a bit, but it'll do."), but when David takes his turn, he pivots 45 degrees to the right, and hits his shot down the nearby paved road.David: Still goin'.
- Meaningless Villain Victory: After Roy takes 5 attempts to sink a difficult hole (along with 5 penalty strokes), putting him out of a victory at the US Open, Smug Snake Rival David laughingly comments Roy really knows how to go down in flames. Roy simply replies, "Nice par, Dave." In short, "faint heart never won fair lady."
- Miracle Rally: Roy follows up his horrendous opening-round 83 with a U.S. Open-record 62 in the second round to put him in contention heading into the weekend.
- Miss Kitty: Doreen, though she isn't a madame, but the owner of a strip club.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Roy has this reaction after holing out the impossible approach at the 18th, voluntarily throwing away the U.S. Open in the process. However, Molly praises him, saying that no one will remember who won years from now, but everyone will remember his infamous 12 and in any case, his top ten finish qualified him for the next tournament automatically.
- Nice Character, Mean Actor: David is a PR-friendly figure in front of the cameras, but is a complete asshole away from it.
- Once Done, Never Forgotten: Romeo likes to bring up how Roy blew a chance at becoming a pro golfer when Roy needs to be humbled.
- Paralysis by Analysis: Heading into the Open, Roy is suddenly unable to hit a straight shot ("My swing feels like an unfolding chair!"). On the practice range with golf pros staring at him in amusement, Roy continues to shank his shots until Romeo makes him do ridiculous things like putting a tee on his ear and wearing his hat backwards. This straightens out Roy's shot; Romeo tells him this is because now Roy's only thinking about how ridiculous he looks, but not about what was paralyzing him, his falling for Molly and worrying about how he will do.Romeo: Your brain was getting in the way!Roy: Well that's hardly ever been the case...
- Precision F-Strike: Romeo when he hands Roy the last ball in their bag, telling him that putting it in the water like the others will disqualify them.Roy: I can make that shot.Romeo: Then do it already! Stop fucking around!
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Roy's posse of friends.*as everyone sleeps in a crowd inside the RV*Roy: It won't always be like this...with me, surrounded by all these guys, snoring...stripper ex-girlfriend laying across from us, caddy sleeping next to her. It won't always be like this.Molly: *smiling* Yes it will.
- Self-Imposed Challenge: In-Universe example. During the Open qualifying tournament, Roy gets in a heated argument with Romeo and proceeds to snap all his clubs out of spite except for his 7 iron. He still ends up winning despite this — even putting with the 7.
- Sexiled: Poor Romeo is left in the rain as Roy and Molly are in the RV celebrating their Relationship Upgrade.
- Stock Lateral Thinking Puzzle: At the beginning of the film, Roy stumps his pals on the famous "Doctor's Son" puzzle, before Molly waltzes in and gives the correct answer.note
- Time Marches On: Roy blows his chance at the Open by trying to get a record 10 under par, stating that not even Jack Nicklaus had done that (true). Since the movie's release, four golfers have beaten that: Tiger Woods (12 under), Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka (both 16 under), and Gary Woodland (13 under). note
- It also took until 2017 for anyone to shoot a 62 in one of the men's major championships note , and until 2023 for that to happen at the U.S. Open. note
- Trademark Favorite Food: Roy's friends just love waffle houses.