Maurice Flitcroft was not a golfer, but that didn’t stop him trying to qualify for golf’s most famous tournament. Fitting then that Sir Mark Rylance had only played a handful of rounds himself when he was cast to play ‘the world’s worst golfer’ in new film The Phantom of The Open.
We’ve long been fans of Maurice Flitcroft’s extraordinary story here at Today’s Golfer. The chain-smoking crane driver made countless disastrous attempts to qualify for golf’s most famous tournament despite never having played a round of golf before.
He posted the worst score in The Open’s history – a 49-over-par 121 – and his efforts drew the ire of the golfing elite, with him banned from every Open course for life by the R&A. But Flitcroft became the scourge of the game’s authorites, flouting his ban by applying for qualifying under foreign names and wearing disguises, and rapidly becoming a folk hero with British fans.
Now, 15 years after his passing at the age of 67, Flitcroft’s story is hitting the big screen in a film adaption of Simon Farnaby and Scott Murray’s superb book, The Phantom of The Open.
BAFTA-winning writer Farnaby penned the script for the comedy drama which has been brought to life by director Craig Roberts and a star-studded cast, led by Rylance, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins and Rhys Ifans.
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Before it hits screens on March 18, we sat down with Rylance to find out what attracted the Academy Award winner to the role and how he went about getting into character.
What attracted you to playing Maurice Flitcroft in The Phantom of The Open?
I like true stories and I liked his character, especially the Don Quixote aspects of him. He had his own definition of who he was, regardless of the contrary evidence. He had a dream and he was inspired by it.
How did you prepare for the role?
Well, it was the first film I made during the pandemic in 2020. I went and visited Barrow-in-Furness and met one of his surviving sons, James, and his grandchildren. I hit some balls on the playing fields and the beach where he used to practice. That was a wonderful weekend.
Are you actually a golfer?
I’ve probably played less than 10 times on the golf course, so I had to book some lessons with a pro to become the worst golfer in the world.
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Did you buy your own set of clubs?
Are you kidding? I can’t afford that! Maurice had a very cheap set. They were vintage, though, and probably worth something now. Mighty proud he was of them, too.
We used the same type of clubs, but not the originals. His family did very kindly send me his wonderful red hat, but it was too small, so we used a replica.
Did you end up catching the golf bug?
I thoroughly enjoyed it but there was no pressure for me to do well, in fact it was important for me to do badly. I never actually played a full 18-hole round. I just hit a lot of balls into a practice net, though
I did watch a lot of golf on TV during the filming. I saw Tiger Woods making a 10 on one hole. If Tiger Woods can do that, I don’t need to feel bad about Maurice G. Flitcroft doing that!
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Did you film at Formby, where the 1976 Open Qualifier took place?
No, we couldn’t because of the pandemic. We filmed in the south at a few different courses. We had the great pleasure of playing a links course in Folkestone, so along the coast. That was an incredible experience.
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What did you admire most about Maurice and his story?
He kept true to his dream. He wasn’t big-headed. He certainly admitted he could have done better, but he was always very adamant he wasn’t the world’s worst golfer.
He always kept a very positive mindset about things, no matter how badly they were going.
Were you surprised by how The R&A acted after finding out he was an imposter?
Well, to punish him for signing up as a professional and making it impossible to play on any course was really unnecessary and nasty. The fact he wasn’t put down by that and realised he could apply from abroad as a foreigner and wear a disguise, I just loved that.
He had a very strong sense of justice, probably more so than we depicted in the film. He was a remarkable man.
Why should golf fans go and see the film?
I think that a lot of the humour arises because so many people take golf very seriously. Maurice showed that one mustn’t be put off thinking they will never be as good as so and so.
He used them as an inspiration and tried to do his best. He wouldn’t be shamed for that and that’s an important lesson, especially for young people. As long as you try to do your best, it doesn’t matter what other people say.
If you were given the opportunity to qualify for The Open tomorrow, would you feel confident of beating Maurice’s score?
(Laughs) I don’t think I would do better than Maurice.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Catling is the Features Editor of Today’s Golfer.
He has been a journalist for more than 10 years and was shortlisted for Bauer Media Journalist of the Year in 2019.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has exclusively interviewed dozens of Major champions, including Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.
You can contact Michael here.