The Phantom of the Open

You can ban him from every course in the country but you'll never take his passion. A tribute to Maurice Flitcroft, 'the world's worst golfer'.
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I don’t know much about golf, but because of an excellent and truly funny book Phantom Of The Open, about a maverick Maurice Flitcroft who carded a record 121 at The Open - by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby, I see it in an entirely new light.  Like most 21st Century sport, golf isn’t really sweating charisma. It’s easy to get the impression that when Tiger Woods isn’t texting porn stars for hate sex, and when John Daly isn’t texting cartons of cigs for hate sex, that it’s a fairly staid business.  Slacks and boring bastards. 19th hole sexism and brass button booze.

That’s certainly how Maurice Flitcroft encountered it in 1976. Oh, Maurice loved the game for the game itself, but not the uptight governing body - ‘20% flesh, 80% rulebook.’ Flitcroft recieves deserved praise for demonstrating how far ahead of his time he was. On his recce to the golf course for the qualifying round, he brought his niece into the club bar despite the rule that women were not permitted entry. Admirably, risking his entry the next day for The Open, he squared up to the Huffing & Puffing Brigade for telling them to leave (in a further show of hypocrisy, they did it through the barmaid). Flitcroft, a man of unquestionable honour.

Flitcroft, a man with little experience of golf beyond practising with his dog on school sports fields then entered The Open’s qualifying round to shoot a record high of 121. Most professionals would chuck in the towel after shooting a 12 on hole seven, but Flitcroft had integrity, kept his head up and literally ploughed through. Like Michael Owen, this is a most beguiling example of a rank amateur successfully posing as a professional sportsman at the highest level. Sadly the story differs from Little Mike here, because upon shooting this round, The Man came down weightily and without any sense of humour on Maurice Flitcroft, essentially banning him from all golf courses in the country, and banning him from entering any further tournaments.

"Like Michael Owen, this is a most beguiling example of a rank amateur successfully posing as a professional sportsman at the highest level."

Despite having an affection for the game that led him to get up at 4am to practice with catalogue clubs on all types of inhospitable environements - rugby fields, cricket squares and the arm of his crane - he was never afforded the chance of a peaceful practice on a proper course. This was a man training for The Open for God’s sake, give him some respect!

What the book recounts, with a mixture of respect, genuine affection and an entirely reasonable amount of ribbing, is the following 20 years of heated cat and mouse. Flitcroft used brass neck, hefty balls and irreverence against the massed minds of the R&A, keepers of The Open.

Flitrcroft used fake names to get into further Open qualifying rounds with various degrees of success. That is, he might succeed in entering a tournament (under such fantastic names as Gene Pacecki, Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal and Arnold Palmtree - occasionally with his caddy, Troy Atlantis), but he wouldn’t succeed in posting an improved score.  Not a shock, as he was hampered in training by kids hurling stones at his head, and further hampered by then running after them to give them similar retribution.

It’s never made clear, and I think this is because it is impossible to do so, whether Flitcroft is a pisstaker, slightly deluded, or an enthusiastic innocent. How could you, given his determination to enter again and again in his own and other names, sheer desire to play golf and his sublime comic timing? On a breakfast TV show, he claims his misses on a catch and release putting machine in a TV studio, are due to not having yet discovered ‘the pace of the green.' A comic touch, yes, but remember that golf is the one thing, beyond being devoted to his family, that he never gave up.

To call him deluded, as some of the fuddy-duddy Gin Crew did in the broadsheets and the R&A, is to miss the point.  This is the man who tightened up security at The Open tenfold (if only to keep him out), challenged its sexist nature (a battle sadly still to be won) and demonstrated a love of the sport that some professionals would be well advised to rediscover. Above all though, for people who witnessed his actions or who read about them in this book, he actually makes golf a genuinely happier place.  After all, there aren’t many golfers who have tournaments held in their honour every year.

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