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There are those of us who, asked if we play golf, reply: ‘No, I like women.’ A relaxing game in pleasant surroundings it may be.

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World’s Worst Golfer Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby

Yellow Jersey, pp.372, 11.99

There are those of us who, asked if we play golf, reply: ‘No, I like women.’ A relaxing game in pleasant surroundings it may be.

There are those of us who, asked if we play golf, reply: ‘No, I like women.’ A relaxing game in pleasant surroundings it may be. But that disappears under a landslide of regulations about shirt collars and footwear, penned by men who boast of ‘values’ yet are happy only when everyone in sight is Exactly Like Them, and not just in terms of gender. Maurice Flitcroft loved the game with a passion. Regulations less so.


A crane driver at Vickers shipyard in Barrow, Flitcroft reached his forties before discovering golf. He could afford neither the time nor the money to play at a club, so practised on waste ground, and occasionally the arm of his crane, from where he drove old balls into the North Sea. Determined beyond belief (as a child he conquered his fear of water by holding his head down in the bath), Flitcroft made the mistake of judging the Open by its name, and entered, qualifying for the 1976 Championship. It was his first ever full round. At 121 shots, it was the worst in Open history.

In any other sport that would have been the end of it. But among the many things forbidden in golf is a sense of humour, and the head of the Royal and Ancient, Keith Mackenzie, (‘50 per cent flesh, 30 per cent blazer and 20 per cent gin’) banned Flitcroft for life, not just from the Open but from every club in the land. Outraged, the would-be champion entered tournament after tournament, getting under the radar (not to mention Mackenzie’s skin) by using false names and disguises, the latter including deerstalker hats and Zapata moustaches dyed with food-colouring.

What raises the story above the level of mere jape is Flitcroft’s antipathy to pigeonholes. He was no hoaxer; Gerald Thornbush (Flitcroft’s middle name, coupled with the place he hung his jacket before practising) came into existence only because he had to. He was no chippy Northerner making Prescott-style ‘wrong side of the tracks’ pleas; his letters to the authorities were well-written and persuasively humorous, though perhaps his application for the Bob Hope Classic (‘they do say one good turn deserves another — and I did go and see your Road Films’) was a step too far. And he was definitely not that dreaded beast, the English Eccentric. Flitcroft (who died in 2007) was simply an ordinary man with a genuine, albeit misguided, belief that he could one day become a great golfer. It was a symptom of his yearning for a world outside the shipyard, a trait that had always been there: his son James received the middle name Harlequin, after one of Maurice’s favourite Picasso paintings.

This book may be a few pages too long, the odd anecdote fractionally oversold, but the tale’s essential warmth and heart make it well worth the read. Some of the details are priceless: Flitcroft getting down on all fours to put his tee in his ground; appealing for sponsorship on the grounds that he was no worse than the England cricket team; attending an American tournament named in his honour with the words ‘it’s the first time Jean and I have been out of the house together since the gas oven exploded’. At a time when golf’s greatest hero has proved himself all too fallible, the story of its greatest anti-hero could be just what the game needs.


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