‘Phantom of the Open’: How Maurice Flitcroft Fooled the R&A

Maurice Flitcroft, posing with Claret Jug
Flitcroft is the subject of a 2022 film and a 2011 biography, titled ‘The Phantom of the Open’

The year 1988 will forever be associated with Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards for British sports fans. But a couple of months after the ski jumper finished last at the Calgary Winter Olympics, another eccentric loser was heading across the Atlantic.

His name was Maurice Flitcroft. Or Gene Pacheki. Or Gerald Hoppy. Or James Beau Jolley. Or Arnold Palmera. Or Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal.

Dubbed the ‘worst golfer in the world’, Flitcroft had risen to fame more than a decade earlier with a record score of 121 in his unsuccessful quest to qualify for the 1976 Open Championship. It was an attempt he would repeat several more times, using names fakes in an extraordinary game of cat and mouse with the tournament organisers, the R&A.

His efforts sparked the interest of the Blythefield Country Club in Michigan, who in the late 1980s invited the Manchester-born Flitcroft to play in an event named after him.

“We felt it was appropriate to acknowledge what we consider to be the average golfer,” then-club pro Buddy Whitten said.

They called him Maurice ‘the Albatross’ Flitcroft, and his remarkable story begins in 1974, back home on the northwest coast of England.

Short presentation gray line

Watching a golf tournament on his brand-new color TV in his Barrow-in-Furness living room, Flitcroft was enthralled. He ordered a set of clubs from a catalog, borrowed instructional books from the library, and went to the beach to hit some balls.

He had been a stunt diver, an ice cream vendor, and an artist. At that time he was working as a tow truck driver. At 45, he would now be a golfer.

“I started playing in the fall of 1974,” Flitcroft said later. “I was working full time and didn’t have a lot of time to practice that fall and winter, but the following summer I did.

“I read about the game and about The Open and I thought it would be a great tournament to play in. I thought it would be nice to achieve that standard, so that was my plan.”

His friend Trevor Kirkwood would comment: “He totally and utterly thought he could win The Open.”

Maurice Flitcroft at the 1976 Open Championship
Flitcroft (far right) died at the age of 77 in 2007. His son Gene described him as “a real character” who “loved golf” and was “wildly popular”.

Although he had not yet played a full round of 18 holes, Flitcroft applied to qualify for the 1976 Open, to be played at Royal Birkdale, not far from his home.

The entry sheet required a box to be checked next to amateur or professional.

“I entered The Open as a professional,” he said. “I couldn’t enter as an amateur because I wasn’t a member of a club and I didn’t have a handicap certificate.

“But I didn’t need those things to enter as a professional. My entry was accepted and that was it.”

Flitcroft, whose practice had been limited to placing coffee mugs in his living room and playing an occasional hole after sneaking onto the courses, and invariably getting sent off, was sent to a 36-hole qualifying event at Formby. What happened would hardly be credible if it had not been documented.

He almost missed his tee time as he got lost while driving to the field. So instead of having time to warm up on the driving range and on the green, he did what most of us do when we show up for our weekly game and rushed straight to the first tee.

Playmates Jim Howard and Dave Roberts were waiting.

“Maurice had a set of Harold Bird golf clubs, which were catalog clubs,” Howard, the first black player to turn PGA pro, recalled in a recent interview on the PGA website.

“His mother had bought them for him. And there were 15 of them in her bag. His caddy had to take one to the pro shop, so Maurice had regulation 14. He was wearing a pair of chinos, a Fred Perry shirt that was ripped at the top and a pork pie hat.

“Dave and I didn’t think too much about this. And when he skied his first tee shot and landed about 20 yards away, we thought it was nerves.”

When Flitcroft deflected his second shot into the rough and took two more before his ball hit Howard and Roberts’ first drives, an R&A official was sent for the rookie pro.

However, the men in suits were powerless to force a player off the field once it had started.

What followed was a “storm of triple and quadruple bogeys, spoiled by a lone pair,” according to a news report.

By the back nine, word had spread around the course that something unique was going on and a “crowd of two or three hundred people gathered to follow us out of curiosity,” Howard said.

“The official total was 121, but it was probably a lot more,” he added, explaining that on the par-five-eighth — he and Roberts hit the green two at a time — “Maurice was in the sand dunes and we didn’t know how many shots he took.” .

A 12 with a question mark was recorded on the scorecard after a player in the back pack said he saw Flitcroft take at least that many shots in the dunes.

“I wasn’t happy at all because that score didn’t reflect my true ability,” a genuinely unhappy Flitcroft said after his round of 49-over-par.

“I should have used the 4-wood, but I left it in the car. He was an expert with the 4-wood, deadly accurate.”

Maurice Flitcroft, posing with Seve Ballesteros
19-year-old Seve Ballesteros (centre) would go on to finish second in the 1976 Open, six shots behind Johnny Miller

Realizing that he would have to shoot 23 in the second round to have any chance of qualifying, Flitcroft left Formby and headed home, leaving American postal worker Walter Danecki, who had also made his way into the 1965 Open Championship. , with the classification record in 36 holes. score of 81 over par 221.

Flitcroft was front page and back page news, with headlines celebrating the brave risk taker who had ripped off the R&A.

But R&A secretary Keith Mackenzie wasn’t amused. Flitcroft was banned from playing.

When he attempted to enter the following year, Mackenzie refused the request, stating that the hapless hacker had provided no evidence that his game had improved.

The pair continued to correspond by letter, and Flitcroft reportedly challenged the exasperated Mackenzie to a game on the Old Course at St Andrews. The request was, as expected, denied.

Undeterred, Flitcroft began using aliases to sneak in. She tried five more times. The R&A, in its efforts to thwart the persistent player, employed a handwriting expert to screen correspondence from him one year.

He used the names James Beau Jolley (Beau for his dog and pronounced Beaujolais because he “played like a good red wine”), Arnold Palmtree as a nod to Mr. Palmer, and the downright brilliant Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal.

He managed to pass as the Swiss player Gerald Hoppy – Gerald is his middle name and Hoppy a nickname given to him by his mother – and played nine holes before being beaten.

“Imagine their surprise when they found out they had the real Maurice Flitcroft on their hands,” he said.

Flitcroft’s stock was high. He appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show and was feted in the United States, where Blythefield in Michigan celebrated his mediocrity with an annual event.

The Maurice G Flitcroft Spring Stag had been created by Tim Moore in 1978. The event rewarded poor play with golf lessons, bowling balls, and goldfish. By 2000, two holes were cut on some greens.

In 1987, Tim’s brother Terry, a golf writer, was invited to play and “in a haze” after recording a hole-in-one with a one-iron on the par-three 15, hatched a plan to bring Maurice to tick. the tenth anniversary of him the following year.

“I spoke to Yorkshire Post golf writer Richard Dodd at the Masters and asked him to check out Maurice for me,” Terry tells BBC Sport.

“Richard told me he was ‘a harmless eccentric’ so I contacted British Airways to see if they would be willing to take him. They loved the idea and also gave me two free business class tickets to use in a raffle.”

Maurice and his wife Jean flew to nearby Detroit. According to a relative, it was “the first time they had left the house together since the gas oven exploded.”

“Their luggage didn’t arrive on the same flight, so we had to go get them some clothes first,” Terry said.

“We hit it off and they came over to my house for dinner and we took them out on a boat out on the lake, though that was cut short because Maurice got a little seasick, which was ironic given he used to be on the merchant ship Armada.”

The exploits of the Flitcrofts made front-page news, and several American television stations were dispatched to cover the golf event.

“He was proud at Blythefield,” Terry continues. “A lot of people were watching, the video cameras were rolling and he hit his first tee shot right down the middle, 200 yards, it was an excellent drive.

“I think the R&A would have been proud of him. He played surprisingly well, had a functional swing and I think he shot in the ’80s and ’90s. Obviously he had been practicing.”

Flitcroft was 58 years old when playing at Blythefield and, buoyed by the experience, made his final attempt to qualify for The Open two years later.

He entered the 1990 championship as Gene Pacheki; reports differ as to whether it was an homage to Danecki or a pun on the surname, which is pronounced “paycheck”.

He was a respectable three after two holes before he was discovered and carried off the course, despite wanting to finish the third where he “had a good chance at a par”.

Perhaps it was a good ending to his Open career. The eccentric loser caught again as he played one last game of cat and mouse.

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