There's no beginning to his talent
In the life of every overconfident, naive sporting hopeful there comes an inevitable thud back down to reality. It could take place during the initial transfer from a local pitch’n’putt course to a six thousand-plus yard eighteen holer or the trial of a serviceable school team striker at a Sunday league football club. But the moment, inevitably, has to come when a person begins to get a new, more balanced view on their ability. At least, that’s what I’d always thought, but having read The Phantom Of The Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World’s Worst Golfer, by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby, I’m not so sure.
Despite his many failed attempts to play even vaguely serviceable golf at a top level, Flitcroft, the man who shot the worst score in Open history, retained a childlike belief in his own potential, untainted by perspective. Even in his fifties, many years after his infamous 121 at Formby in the qualifying round for the 1976 Open, he was still writing indignant letters to the R&A, shocked that they would not let him compete in the world’s greatest championship, and talking about the way he had devoted himself to “mastering the game in difficult circumstances” and that he wasn’t going to “throw it away” when he was “so close to succeeding”.
Maurice’s specific kind of devotion involved hitting balls on a playing field near his home in Barrow-In-Furness, Cumbria – sometimes with clubs, sometimes with an upside down umbrella. Here, despite lumbago and fibrositis and being regularly pelted with random objects by a gang of schoolchildren, he worked on his swing, trying to correct what he called “The Wrecking Shot” (his customary duck hook) in the hope that, when he did, he would be crowned Open Champion. A frequently unemployed crane driver, he was never a member of a club – had, in fact, been banned from many for speaking out against their petty rules and regulations – and did not take up golf until his mid-forties, when he was inspired by hearing the BBC golf theme at the beginning of coverage of the 1974 Picadilly World Matchplay Championship. Before that, he’d tried his hand at art, diving, songwriting and fighting, seemingly with the same belief in his own abilities, sending his lyrics to the New Musical Express, convinced he was a Sinatra-in-waiting.
Murray and Farnaby’s book sits well alongside alternative golf literature such as Lawrence Donegan’s Four Iron In The Soul and Rick Reilly’sWho’s Your Caddy, but equally well alongside classic oddbod biographies of one-off anti-establishment nobodies such as Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gold’s Secret and Alec Wilkinson’s The Happiest Man In TheWorld. It is such a nobrainer of an idea, it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before – a story so unlikely, tragicomic and Walter Mitty-ish, it almost writes itself, no doubt helped by the fact that Murray and Farnaby were granted exclusive access to the late Flitcroft’s unpublished autobiography, and spent time with his sons: two tearaways who have the inauspicious distinction of having received Britain’s first ever Anti-Social Behaviour Injunction. For sword-fighting. Each other. In their back garden.
But Flitcroft needed two more distanced voices to tell his story, and it’s easy to see why his own manuscript was roundly rejected by publishers when he touted it around in the early 90s. He was a little too far inside the bubble of his own anti-legend and oddly fixated on the banal. The quotes used here from the original book display a man strangely obsessed with beverages – cups of tea and cool glasses of lemonade excite him far more than Claret Jugs – who believed that, if you told someone in writing you were going to do something great, that was all you needed to actually do it.
It’s a philosophy that took him surprisingly far. Flitcroft might not have ever broken a hundred in his attempts to qualify for pro tournaments, but his simplistic self-belief took him into the qualifying rounds in the first place, which is more than can be said for a million other wannabes. It also meant he was a quote machine to match John Daly at his most gung-ho. “Everything was going well and according to plan until I five putted from eight feet at the second,” he said, after one of his handful of attempts to qualify for pro events. When, after his 121 at Formby – a round memorably described by the Daily Mail’s Ian Wooldridge as “a blizzard of bogeys ruined by a solitary par” – it was put to him that his bad form might have distracted his playing partners. His response – “I didn’t pose a threat to their chances of qualifying, so that should have given them a psychological advantage” – says much about his childlike view of the sport.
The Phantom Of The Open tells the story, mainly, of Flitcroft’s cat and mouse battle with then-R&A Secretary Keith Mackenzie: an official Murray and Farnaby describe as “a bluff, rotund, balding man whose constitution was 50 percent flesh, 30 percent blazer and 10 percent gin”. Having been rumbled as an impostor, Flitcroft continued to enter The Open under a series of pseudonyms, including Gene Paceki and Gerald Hoppy, using fake addresses and often growing elaborate moustaches in order to get past the now very much on their guard R&A officials.
Little signs, however, gave him away, including carrying his golf bag like a ladies handbag, getting down on all fours to push his tees into the ground and running off numerous triple bogeys. He made it through the system time and again, but repeatedly found himself escorted off the course. That 121 remained his crowning achievement: the one time he made it all the way. Upon hearing about it, his mum reportedly asked him, “Does that mean you’ve won?”. That was probably funny and ridiculous and mumlike at the time, but after reading this account of a working class hero’s life – an unintentionally bohemian life, clearly so much more interesting than that of many of the champions Flitcroft wanted to emulate – one can only conclude the answer to her question is now a resounding “Hell yeah!”.
The Phantom Of The Open by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby is published by Yellow Jersey Press.