Life story

The “worst golfer in the world” has become a popular hero. Now the story of his life is a movie.

In a new film about his life, Maurice Flitcroft is portrayed by British actor Mark Rylance.

Nick Wall/Phantom of the Open

In the summer of 1976, Maurice Flitcroft, a laid-back crane operator from the north of England, signed up to compete in the local Open Championship qualifier.

But that was not the story.

What made the headlines was Flitcroft’s experience in the game.

Basically, he had none.

In his mid-40s, eager to take a break from his work routine and inspired by a glimpse of golf he had seen on television, Flitcroft picked up a set of clubs and learned to play at a nearby beach. He didn’t have a disability, but if he had, the number would have been stratospheric. He signed up for qualifying through a simple loophole: he signed up as a pro. Nobody checked.

That the record shows that Flitcroft did not claim the burgundy jug.

Flitcroft was one of golf’s all-time pranksters.

Nick Wall/Phantom of the Open

After throwing his opening drive, barely past the first tee, he shot 121, the highest score ever in any phase of the Open. Delicious fodder for British tabloids, his performance outraged the British golf establishment. Angry and embarrassed, the R&A banned Flitcroft from the championship for life.

It could have ended there, except it didn’t.

Unfazed, Flitcroft went on to gatecrash several more Open qualifiers over the years, playing under aliases and in disguise. His exploits gave him a folkloric glow, a populist hero affectionately billed by the press as the “world’s worst golfer”.

By the 1980s, the term “a Flitcroft” had entered the British golf lexicon as a playful label for a hapless hacker. Among those who heard of it was a boy from the north of England named Simon Farnaby. The son of a gardener and a keen golfer himself, Farnaby knew the meaning of “a Flitcroft” but was unaware of its etymology. It wasn’t until decades later, in 2007, that he learned of his origins when he opened the morning paper to Flitcroft’s obituary.

Although he once dreamed of playing golf for a living, Farnaby grew up to be an actor, comedian and writer. He knew a good thread when he read one. He felt that Flitcroft’s story deserved further treatment.

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In 2010, together with journalist Scott Murray, Farnaby published a book, “The Phantom of the Open”. More recently, he turned this book into a screenplay, which has now become a film of the same name. In cinematic terms, the film is not a radical epic but a quiet charmer that touches on big themes.

“It’s not one of those golf movies where an underdog triumphs,” Farnaby said the other day by phone from New York, where he was on a publicity tour. “It’s the story of a golfer who starts badly and who stays bad.

The larger narrative takes place off the course, with golf as the vehicle for a story about dreaming and risk-taking and the redeeming power of friendship and love – if you really want to do all of Siskel and Ebert.

As described by Mark Rylance, Flitcroft is a devoted family man and a cheerfully smothered man who has given up on adventure for a more prosaic life and is not burdened with resentments or regrets.

The film, says its author, is about “a golfer who starts badly and stays bad.”

Nick Wall/Phantom of the Open

When golf stirs something in him, he decides to let his freak flag fly — with consequences that are by turns humbling, humorous, and heartwarming.

“The Phantom of the Open” closely follows actual events, some of which are catnip for golf history buffs. Flitcroft, for example, really crossed paths with Seve Ballesteros in the 1976 qualifier, just as he was really paired that same year with Jim Howard, the first black golfer to become a PGA professional. Both scenes are recreated in the film.

There are tricks. Quibblers might note that the competition was actually not shown on UK TV, as the film says. But Farnaby and director Craig Roberts use this device to push the plot forward, and as a viewer, it’s easy to pretend.

More difficult to understand is the way the film handles the evolution of its main character. Initially, Flitcroft is portrayed as an innocent child, so painfully naive that he is convinced he has a shot at golf’s elite level. When he hits the tee during his qualifier, he is shocked to find he is out of his league. By the end of the film, however, Flitcroft has gone from mild simpleton to witty prankster, fooling the R&A with slapstick and increasingly absurd disguises. pen namesincluding – as noted in the closing credits – Gene Paychecki and Arnold Palmtree.

What explains his transformation? Farnaby offered this explanation:


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“Think about it. Here’s this guy from a working class background. Golf was foreign to him. He’s out there all alone, hitting shots on the beach. You know what golf is. You’re making a good shot , you feel like you have superpowers, like Popeye eating spinach. (Flitcroft) had no context. He was alone, with no one to compare himself to. So at first he really thought that he was pretty good. Then he goes into qualifying and he realizes that’s not the case. If nothing else had happened – if the R&A hadn’t banned him – I think that probably would have been for him in qualifying. But then they banned him, and he got back up. He felt he had been wronged. He had fallen in love with golf and they were trying to take it away from him. He wasn’t just going to accept it.

Makes sense. But it’s not a progression made clear in the film.

What is laid bare is Flitcroft’s love for the game and how he loved it back. His good-natured persistence in the face of failure made him easy to root for, a sort of metaphor for the appeal of the game. Over the years, as his story spread beyond the UK, trophies and tournaments distant were created in honor of Flitcroft: shoddy celebrations of the game.

In 1988, members of Blythefield Country Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan brought Flitcroft and his family to his “Annual Maurice Gerald Flitcroft Member-Guest Tournament.” In the footage of this event that appears near the end of “Phantom of the Open”, you can see the real Flitcroft playing.

His swing doesn’t look bad.

“Phantom of the Open” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 3, and in 30 additional markets the following week. By June 17, it should be in theaters everywhere.

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a contributor to GOLF Magazine since 2004 and now contributes to all GOLF platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Have Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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