A new golf comedy is soon to be released as a movie and while it might not hit the heights of Happy Gilmore or Caddyshack, at least it is inspired by true events.
The Phantom of the Open relates to the 1976 Open Championship when a 46-year-old set the worst score in the famous event’s history.
Maurice Flitcroft is played by Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance, who admits he was ‘thrilled’ to be given the part. The director did not need to look up a British actor who played golf when scouting for the lead role, because Flitcroft was more conman, less golfer.
He didn’t have a handicap and he lived in a small council house and the golf bug bit when he watched the pros on a new colour TV. He bought a cheap set of golf clubs and an instruction manual penned by Peter Alliss. He then practised two hours a day at the local beach.
Before the 1976 Open he tricked organisers by pretending to be a professional golfer and was given a spot at the 36-hole qualifier at Formby Golf Club and Royal Birkdale.
He shot 121 on the first day and withdrew. ‘I’ll see you next year,’ he said, waving to photographers.
Flitcroft then went to The Open as a spectator and got close enough to a teenage Seve Ballesteros in the final round to be photographed with the future legend. By now all the golf clubs around the UK were aware of this hoaxer and the R&A banned him from every golf club in the land.
Two years later he appeared at another Open qualifier sporting a handlebar moustache and calling himself Gene Paceki. He was asked to leave after four holes as his ‘poor form’ was unsettling other pros.
And he kept trying again and again.
In 1983 he entered under the name of Gerald Hoppy and was finally threatened with legal action. He died at the age of 78 in 2007 and you can be sure he never got close to within 50 shots of ever shooting his age.
Those enthusiastic amateurs reading this column will be able to identify with playing with partners whose sole aim is to break 100 in a round. It’s not as if they are actually bad golfers – but invariably the shots are leaked when they’re on the green or caught in a bunker, or having to carry over water.
Possibly the ‘worst’ golfer I have played with was the 2.01m tall former Northern Transvaal and Springbok lock Phillip Schutte. He arrived for a round in his sponsored VW Citi Golf and took four clubs out of his boot, which he carried in one hand. Let’s just say he wasn’t very good – but I recall we had a lot of fun.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck I played at a celebrity golf day at Pearl Valley. The celebrity in our fourball was a household name in the music industry. While he turned heads on the sponsored tee boxes, from tee to green he struggled, and no one was going to try to teach him the rules as the day unfolded.
He’d ground his club in the bunker, practise swinging and taking sand as if he was on the fairway, he’d allow himself preferred placing in the rough, and unintentionally steal a few centimetres here and there. It was a l-o-n-g day. But, guess what, we were never going to be in the hunt for any prizes and most of all, he had fun. And that’s what playing golf is all about, isn’t it?
– This column first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!