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  • Alistair Tait

Maurice Flitcroft's Lasting Legacy

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind since hearing Maurice Flitcroft’s life story is about to be celebrated in a feature length film: who missed out on a potential spot in the 1976 Open Championship because the imposter conned his way into Open Qualifying?

The legendary hacker infamously submitted an entry form for Open Qualifying for the field at Royal Birkdale, claiming he was a professional golfer even though he’d never been on a golf course in his life. His entry was accepted.

The crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness managed 18 holes at Formby Golf Club in 1976, the year Johnny Miller won the Open Championship and Seve Ballesteros announced himself on the world stage. Then 46 years old, Flitcroft shot 121, 49 over par. He didn’t play the second round. He withdrew after those, er, sterling 18 holes. (Wonder if the scorecard still exists?)

“I have no chance of qualifying,” Flitcroft said. “I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months and I’m sorry I did not do any better.”

Actually, the R&A told Flitcroft in no uncertain terms he wasn’t playing the second round.

Flitcroft wasn’t even a member of a golf club. He and Ballesteros might have been miles apart in terms of talent, but they had one thing in common: they both learned to play on a beach. Seve famously learned to hit shots with a 3-iron off sand at Pedrena in Northern Spain. Flitcroft practised on the beach near his home in Cumbria.

A newspaper got in touch with Flitcroft’s mother to get her opinion of her son’s attempt to play in The Open.

“He’s got to start somewhere, hasn’t he?” she said.

Flitcroft sent in his entry form for the 1977 championship; the R&A rejected it.

Undeterred, Flitcroft filed a bogus entry form for the 1978 championship under the name of Gene Pacecki, reportedly an American professional. He played a few holes at South Herts before the R&A twigged to his real identity and tossed him off the course.

A Swiss player supposedly by the name Gerald Hoppy managed nine holes at Pleasington in 1983. After 63 shots, the R&A realised the man with the false moustache was Flitcroft. Arnold Palmtree, Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal and James Beau Jolley were other aliases Flitcroft used to try to dupe the R&A.

I spoke to Flitcroft via telephone when I worked for Golf Monthly in the mid 1990s. I heard he was writing a book and managed to track him down. I asked him if he still harboured dreams of playing in The Open. He told me ‘yes,’ that he still hit balls on the beach at Barrow-in-Furness, hoping one day to become good enough to play in the championship.

Now his story is about to be told on the silver screen. The Phantom of the Open, based on an eponymous book by Simon Farnaby and Scott Murray, is being distributed in the UK by eOne and will be screened in cinemas from 5 November. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (pictured) plays Flitcroft, while actor and filmmaker Craig Roberts is the film’s director. Farnaby wrote the screenplay.

Wonder if Flitcroft’s life will be glammed up? Will there be some attractive woman who dotes on the would be major winner, someone Flitcroft confides his dreams to in some sort of Rocky Balboa-like tale. (Oh, I hope not!) Will the movie identify those players who had to suffer Flitcroft’s antics for those excruciating 18 holes at Formby? What about the player who missed out because Flitcroft took his spot?

Just think, there might be a poor lost soul who could have been Champion Golfer of the Year in 1976 if Flitcroft hadn't stole his place.

Far fetched? Okay, maybe just a tad. However, there was a serious side to Flitcroft’s con trick: serious players missed out on playing in Open Qualifying as a result. That’s why the R&A were not best pleased with Flitcroft’s shenanigans, or copy cats like Bo Brit, a Canadian who turned up in a pair of Cowboy boots a few years later who manged to con his way into Open Qualifying. He, too, was stopped in his tracks after a few holes.

Perhaps Flitcroft’s legacy other than this movie is he forced the R&A to institute stricter checks on entry forms, with names flagged up if there is anything suspicious. Perhaps those who now work in the R&A entries department should raise a wee toast to Flitcroft once a year for giving them a job.

As for the player who missed out at Formby in 1976 because Flitcroft stole his place, he probably has Walter Mitty-like dreams about beating Miller and Ballesteros over the closing holes in the greatest championship ever played.

For a someone who couldn’t hit his hat, Maurice Flitcroft has certainly left a lasting legacy

#JustSaying: “The Championship Committee reserves the right to disqualify any competitors making a false statement on his entry form.” R&A policy post Flitcroft

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