WHILE unknown golfer Maurice Flitcroft swung his ball for a bow in the sport’s most prominent tournament, something was clearly wrong.
Not only was the 46-year-old dressed in a slouchy jungle hat and a pair of worn-out plastic shoes, he got down on all fours to put on his T-shirt.
After posing as a professional player to compete in an elite qualifying competition for the 1976 British Open, Maurice lined up his first practice and took a clumsy hit on his ball – sending him a miserable 40 yards .
His shots didn’t improve, as he exploded into the bushes and skewed single putts.
By the time he was halfway through the course, the red-faced officials were urgently trying to persuade Maurice to step down gracefully.
It turned out that he was not the gifted player he had claimed to be.
Instead, he was a shipyard worker who had never toured a golf course in his life – instead training in muddy fields and at a local beach.
But the chain-smoking impostor wasn’t ready to give up on his dream of lifting the tournament’s famous Claret Jug trophy when the event took place that year at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport.
It was the year that 19-year-old Spanish prodigy Seve Ballesteros announced himself to the world by finishing second to American great Johnny Miller.
As for mischievous Maurice, he was knocked out of qualifying after scoring 121 over 18 holes at Formby Golf Club in Merseyside – a disastrous 49 OVER PAR and the worst round in British Open history.
Unable to hole a putt
But his son James, 59, tells The Sun that Maurice was not one to throw in the towel, saying: “One of his problems was that he wouldn’t give up. On anything.
“Whether it was building a bobsleigh for us, learning a language or installing a window, he wouldn’t stop until he did it.
“So for them it was out of the question to ask him to retire.
“He had paid his money, so he wanted his money’s worth.”
Maurice was the original lovable sports loser, long before English ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards or swimmer Eric “The Eel” Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa.
He was dubbed “the world’s worst golfer” and made headlines around the world.
The eccentric amateur later failed to punch a single putt when he appeared on a mock mini-course for daytime television, complaining that the studio floor under the inside green was uneven.
A tournament was even created in his name in the United States, celebrating effort rather than ability.
Now Sir Mark Rylance stars as Maurice, who died in 2007 at the age of 77, in the new film The Phantom Of The Open which exploits the comedic hoax character at all costs.
Indeed, it is not a story that ended with this ignominious defeat at the Open.
Even though the bosses of The Royal And Ancient tournament, based in Scotland at St Andrews, the “home of golf”, banned him from competing again, Maurice continued to try to participate in the Open and other professional tournaments around the world under a series of comedic aliases. These included Gene Pacecki, as in Paycheck; Arnold Palmtree, a nod to American golf legend Arnold Palmer; and the just crazy nickname of Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal.
Maurice also tried to disguise his now famous face. Her son James says: “My mother dyed his mustache and his hair. He also used hats and aliases.
“My brother Philip lived in Switzerland so he would send a dad registration form from there and he also had an American buddy who would do the same.” But Maurice was regularly kicked out of class with his deerstalker hat and threatened with arrest.
In desperation, royal secretary and former Keith Mackenzie – played by Notting Hill actor Rhys Ifans in the new film – has employed a handwriting expert to try to ferret out the fake apps.
But golf was a passion for Maurice – and it was James and his twin brother Gene’s interest in the sport that sparked it.
James says: “We started playing golf when we were 10 or 11 years old. Our father bought us clubs. If we wanted cricket, we had pads, balls, wickets. It was the same with golf clubs.
“He kind of liked the idea when he saw us cleaning them up and training with our buddies. The next minute he has a set of clubs himself and is training every day.
But the family’s income did not extend to golf club memberships.
Maurice worked as a crane operator with shipbuilders Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, and his wife Jean – who died in 2002 – was on the secretarial staff there.
Undeterred, Maurice practiced hitting balls along his local beach, in the park, on the school grounds and sometimes sneaking onto the yards at night. James says: “He was fined for playing on the school grounds, about 100 yards from our house.”
Maurice’s twin sons had no idea their father was competing in British Open qualifying in the summer of 1976 – and neither did his employers. He had told his bosses he was sick, so it was a big surprise for them to see pictures of him walking behind Seve Ballesteros at the Open – after failing to qualify,
Maurice had arrived to watch and got close enough to Seve to be photographed with him.
James adds: “One weekend he left and we didn’t think about it. Then on Saturday, The Sun had a banner title Maurice Flitcroft shot 121 at the Open.
Walk behind Seve
“We were around 12. We didn’t realize how huge it was until we got to school on Monday morning.”
While the brothers took quite a bit of hill, it was much worse for Maurice – who received his marching orders from work.
James says: “They realized he wasn’t sick when they saw him in the paper. He lost his job, mom went to work and he took care of us. He was one of the first stay-at-home husbands.
The local golf bigwigs were also not thrilled that Maurice showed up to the sport and quickly put him in blackball.
Former tailor and jeweler James said: “Because of what he did, he made himself virtually unemployable.
“There was a stigma attached to what happened in golf.
“We were bored growing up. It probably affected some of our job prospects when we left school. Most leaders played golf. The powers that be. But none of this was going to dampen the determination of Maurice, who had the support of his family and many members of the community.
James says: “My homies’ dads used to tell us, ‘Well done to your dad for what he’s done’.”
Gene, who died in 2010, and James joined him in his hugs across the country, sometimes acting as his caddy.
James recalls his father once pitching a tent at Scotland’s prestigious Gullane golf course in East Lothian, only to realize later that they were in the middle of the car park.
He says: “It was filling up with cars. I said, ‘Dad, we have to take the tent down. »
But James didn’t always enjoy being a caddy as it often meant facing off with furious officials when Maurice had been scolded.
He remembers with a smile: “I didn’t like the confrontation, but Dad relished it.
Indeed, Maurice was noticed by the press.
After the 1976 Open, with his dentures missing, he told photographers, “I’ll see you guys next year” – and praised the course’s putting greens for “they look like my living room where I train every night”.
The twins inherited their father’s sense of devotion – James and Gene loved to dance and became disco world champions.
Although Maurice talked about golf all the time, he never had any complaints from his wife Jean, played by Paddington actress Sally Hawkins in the film. “They were an old-fashioned couple,” says James: “They supported each other in all of their endeavours.
“She didn’t say ‘don’t do it’. She was a co-conspirator.
By 1992, Maurice had developed a hip problem which finally convinced him to put away his golf clubs.
The sports world may have called him a joke, but he wanted to be a great golfer.
James insists he reached the level of a decent club player and was definitely NOT the worst in the world.
He says, “Dad took it seriously – deadly serious. ‘Go ahead, what the hell! We do not care?’ – it was the attitude of the family. We have kept this throughout life. You have to do crazy things.
- The Phantom of the Open (12A) is in theaters from Friday.