Maurice Flitcroft, who first hit the headlines in 1976 when he had an opening 121 in Open Qualifying at Formby, died in 2007. But on Friday of this week in the UK, and not too long after that in America, Sir Mark Rylance will be playing this engaging eccentric in a film called “The Phantom of the Open.” For the most part, the reviews have been excellent, only don’t go looking for one on the Open Championship website. The very name Flitcroft might still be enough to prompt the odd heart attack among R&A personnel.
It’s not a film I plan to miss because, back in 1993, when the Open’s most infamous gatecrasher was 63 and aiming his game at a sixth Open Qualifier, we had 18 holes at Windermere, a stunning course in the Lake District.
Not, mind you, that it was easily arranged. First, Flitcroft was no different to any of the other well-known names of the day in asking for appearance money and expenses. I managed to whittle him down to lunch and 18 holes, only for him to move the goalposts on the day. He said he would be invoicing my newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, for lost balls. Twelve as it turned out. The next problem had to do with the venue. Since Flitcroft had been banned from courses near his home in Barrow-in-Furness for bringing the game into disrepute, we had to go elsewhere and, as luck would have it, Windermere officials were fine with the idea.
Flitcroft, along with his son, Gene, who was serving as his driver-cum-caddie, arrived on to the first tee with a minute to spare and, straightaway, Gene put an interested cluster of bystanders in the picture. “He’s not as bad as people think,” he announced every bit as well as you would expect of someone who was a part-time DJ. In the circumstances, this father’s opening shot was a lot better than anticipated – high and right but on the fairway. The bystanders, who had hoped for something a bit special, returned to the clubhouse.
It was a pity they missed the par-four second. There was a notice warning of vehicles on the adjacent country road and, by the time Gene had finished drawing our attention to it, there was no question as to where Flitcroft Sr. would hit. Following a mad flash of a swing, his ball shot over the wall and bounded down the tarmac.
The search had lasted rather longer than the regulation five minutes when Gene spotted the missile way down the road. It may have been out of bounds but, in the eyes of his mostly loyal son, the shot was not without its redeeming features. “It’s pin high, dad,” he cried. With Flitcroft seemingly unaware how many shots and penalty shots he had amassed, I made the silent assumption that I was two up.
Though this, I promise, is not a blow-by-blow account of our 18 holes, the fourth hole has to be worth a mention. Having said that he was going to “slosh” his drive, my opponent dispatched his ball into ferns, never to be seen again. The same applied with ball No. 2 and, by the time Ball No. 3 had stopped just short of the green, patience was wearing a little thin. Flitcroft planned to use his wedge; Gene said that he should take his putter. “I know what I’m doing,” said Flitcroft. “No, you don’t,” returned Gene.
Flitcroft was taking his golf as seriously as any of his professional counterparts but, on the rare occasion when we weren’t looking for golf balls, he regaled me with details of his career. This erstwhile crane driver talked of early practice sessions in a field or on the beach and revealed how he was the beneficiary of a series of instructional articles penned by Al Geiberger. (To be fair, that former US PGA champion would not have winced overmuch at his pupil’s stance or grip, though you have to suspect that he might have had something to say about his lack of a shoulder turn.)
Then, when someone drew his attention to how the 1976 Open was to be played not too far from Barrow-in-Furness – at Birkdale to be precise – there was no stopping him. Though he had still to play on a course, he wrote to Peter Alliss to request an entry form and, with no reply forthcoming, he tried the R&A who dispatched one by the next post.
The form presented problems because it was asking if he was an amateur or a professional. Flitcroft did not have a clue what that was all about but, since he possessed neither handicap nor a club membership at that stage, he ticked the box against “Professional.”
The great day arrived, and the enormity of the occasion began to hit him when a car-park attendant ushered him into a space in the competitors’ carpark. Half an hour later and the starter was calling “On the tee, Maurice Flitcroft.” And that was when his knees began to quake.
So began a round in which he was at sixes and sevens while his playing companions were silently critical. They congratulated him on his one par but, at the close of the day, they made plain that their own golf had suffered. Gene would hear none of that, the reason being that he and his twin brother were disco-dancing champions who had always drawn strength from seeing fellow competitors in a spot of bother.
Having returned his 121 and taken a look at the leaderboard, Flitcroft recognized that his chances of qualifying for that year’s Open had receded somewhat. What is more, “a belly full” of media interviews had hardly made him feel any better. His mother had been also dragged into proceedings when the press sought her out to ask if she felt the Open had been a step too far too soon for her son. “For heaven’s sake,” she told them, “He’s got to start somewhere.”
Our hero gave the Open a miss in 1977 but, by using a pseudonym, he tried again in 1978 and ’79. On each occasion he was chased from the course by a referee. It was the same again in ’83 and ’84, The ’83 edition was the biggest disappointment of all in that he made it to the turn – an achievement in itself, even if the score was no better than 63 – before being dismissed. On each occasion, officialdom had refused to give him back his entry fee.
At the end of our round at Windermere, Flitcroft told me that he was not bothering with that year’s Open at Royal St George’s but would instead be heading for The Belfry. There was no mention of his playing in the Ryder Cup, but he hoped to have a series of lessons and get himself a handicap in the process. Such steps, he thought, would enable him to play in the ’94 Open under his own name and as an amateur. “There’ll be less pressure that way,” he said. Alas, none of it ever happened.
That he had lost every hole in our game never got a mention, either from me or from him. Rather was our lunch-time discussion devoted to the three seven irons which, for some reason, had met with his full approval.
Regardless of where those shots and the rest had ended up, Flitcroft’s heart was in the right place. He was the most besotted golfer I ever met.
Top: “The Phantom of the Open” movie poster (Nick Wall, Entertainment One); Maurice Flitcroft at the 1976 British Open (The People, Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
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