Those few of you who regularly read my ABC Wednesday posts will know that there is nothing I like better than an eccentric rogue and this week I give you one of the greatest – Maurice Flitcroft the Phantom of the Open.
Here was a man who took up golf at the age of forty-six and believing that he had mastered the game in a matter of months he posed as a professional to enter the most prestigious tournament in golf and carding a never to be equalled score of 121.
Flitcroft was born in West Gorton, Manchester, in 1929, the son of a bus driver. His father was forced out of work through illness and when he had recovered he cast his net far and wide for employment which led the family to Barrow-in-Furness.
For those unfamiliar Barrow, it is one of the most remote towns in England at the end of what is called the longest cul-de-sac in Europe. As one wag put it ‘Barrow’s not quite the end of the world… but you can see it from here.’
Ship-building was its major employer and it was here that Flitcroft first worked. However, such manual labour wasn’t for someone of his self-perceived abilities and I shall skip through his various careers as a soldier (and mutineer), seaman, comedy diver (yes, there once was such an entertainment), ice cream salesman, songwriter and painter and rush forward to 1974 when Flitcroft discovered his true calling.
By then Flitcroft was a family man, married with twin sons, and worked as a crane driver at Vicker’s Shipyard. The Flitcrofts replaced their old black and white television with a colour tv and one of the first programmes that Maurice saw was the 1974 Piccadilly World Matchplay Championship and he fell in love with the game. After all, it looked so easy!
In Flitcroft’s usual up-and-at-em style, he ordered a set of mail-order Wilson Avenger clubs because he liked the name and then marched down to the local library to read every book he could find on the finer points of the game. Suitably equipped, he then set about mastering the art by practising on public fields and the on the local rugby league pitch come rain and shine. He even took his clubs to work and scramble to the end of his crane and whack balls into the Irish Sea.
There are three golf clubs in Barrow but he couldn’t afford to join one of them and was turned away from another for various clothing-code violations which left just the nine-hole course. Flitcroft decided not to join officially and simply hopped over the fence after dark to practise his putting by the light of a street lamp.
Next, he was asked for his home club. He might have put any of his three local clubs but there was a chance that they might check up so he left it blank. However, many pros are ‘unattached’ which is what the R&A must have assumed because he was accepted to play in one of the five qualifying tournaments at Formby Golf Club in Lancashire.
Despite staying with his brother in nearby Skelmersdale, Flitcroft managed to get himself lost on the way to the club and arrived with just minutes to spare. Dressed in a shabby cap and gumboots he entered the club shop to buy some balls. When asked which he preferred, he answered: ‘I don’t mind. I can play with anything’.
And so began the most remarkable round in the Open’s long and illustrious history. Flitcroft opened with a 3-over-par 7 at the first followed by 5 at the second and 6 at the third. Then things went from bad to worse. He managed a 12 at the seventh although this had a question mark behind it because his partners lost count of his attempts to get out of a bunker.
His final score of 121 meant that he would have to shoot a round of twenty-three the following day to qualify for the Open proper (a minimum of thirteen holes in one) and so Flitcroft decided to withdraw from that year’s championship.
Some thought that this was a prank being played by Marty Feldman who had recently released The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Golfer, a claim made all the more believable since Flitcroft had a more than a passing likeness to the comedian. But this was no prank and Flitcroft became an instant media celebrity, such as the headline in the Daily Record that read: Maurice G Flitcroft Superstar!
The R&A officials didn’t share that opinion and banned him from ever entering the Open again which was a mistake because Flitcroft just saw this as a further challenge and he set about ever more elaborate means of entering the competition assuming the pseudonyms of Gene Pacecki, Gerald Hoppy, James Beau Jolley and ever more ludicrous disguises such to dodge past the pettifogging R&A.
In 1987 Flitcroft was invited to America to play the starring role in the annual competition named in his honour at Blythefield Golf and Country Club in Michigan where he was treated as a megastar.
Flitcroft was a class-warrior and a working-class hero who took on the vindictiveness of the fusty establishment of golf and won – after a fashion. He once played a round with Peter Alliss who said of him:
In his heart and his face, you could see a warmth and a smile and a thought and something that made you think that he had contributed something already to the game of golf – even if it is only a smile.
Flitcroft died in 2007 but his name lives on, not least in the competition named in his honour and the biopic of his career being planned. In truth, I have only touched the surface of Flitcroft’s remarkable life and career and whether you’re a golf fan or not I highly recommend The Phantom of the Open by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby linked below.