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How ‘world’s worst golfer’ tricked his way into the Open despite never playing a round

Chain-smoking crane operator Maurice Flitcroft, 46, of Barrow, rubs against a future legend and becomes a thorn in the side of the golf establishment

Mark Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft in The Phantom Of The Open

Image: E1 entertainment)

In 1976 some of the world’s best golfers competed before the British Open – without realizing that there was a chain-smoking crane operator from Barrow in their midst.

On the sports pages the next day, Maurice Flitcroft – who had never played a full round in his life – had “Jack Nicklaus and so much” banned into the small print.

Somehow, the 46-year-old hoaxer had managed to overthrow the biggest competition on the golf calendar and get the worst score in its illustrious 141-year history.

Side by side with future legend Severiano Ballesteros, Maurice became the scourge of the establishment.

His incredible story is now being told in the new film The Phantom Of The Open, which stars Mark Rylance and premiered this week at the London Film Festival.

Maurice has made his way towards “fame and fortune” and cemented his reputation as the “worst golfer in the world”.

Crane operator learned to play golf from library books

Manchester-born Maurice was no stranger to theatrics even before he started his golf career.

After a period in the merchant navy, he tried his hand at artist and worked as a comedy stuntman with a traveling theater company before settling in Barrow-in-Furness after his wife Jean married.

Golfer Seve Ballesteros at the 1976 Open alongside Maurice
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Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

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He fell in love with golf after watching the 1974 World Match Play Championship on television and was inspired by the story of Walter Danecki, a postal worker in Milwaukee.

Walter had pretended to be a professional golfer to take part in the 1965 Open and shot a total of 221 laps in qualifying, reports the Guardian.

“Walter wanted to become a professional golfer but was thwarted by the USPGA and its narrow-minded insistence on demonstrating gaming skills,” Maurice later wrote in his unpublished memoir.

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Ordering an entry form from Royal and Ancient (R&A) organizers, Maurice simply stated that he was a professional golfer and had his sights on the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Southport.

First, however, it was about qualifying at Formby Golf Club near Liverpool.

To prepare, Maurice borrowed instruction manuals from the local library and practiced by hitting balls on the local beach.

“He packed the club like he intended a murder”

When he showed up on qualifying day, Maurice was accompanied by one of his two sons who acted as caddy – but his play partner Jim Howard was quick to suspect something was wrong.

“After grabbing the bat as if to murder someone, Flitcroft lifted it straight up, came straight down, and the ball flew exactly three feet,” recalls Jim, the Telegraph reports.

Maurice insisted that his qualifying performance was not a “total disaster”
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Unknown)

The Phantom of The Open premiered this week at the BFI London Film Festival
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Image:

Pietro Recchia / SOPA Images / REX / Shutterstock)

“We got on our nerves about that, but after he punctured a second we called the R&A officers.”

Reflecting on his game, Maurice added: “My drive from the first tee was a real disappointment.

“I swung the bat and let it fly. It wasn’t a total disaster. It could have gone straight up, come down and hit an official in the head, but it didn’t, I’m glad to say.

“It soared high in the air, forward, but only for a short distance.”

The newcomer scored 121 over 18 holes – 49 over par. It was the worst performance ever recorded in Open history.

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Maurice saw his chances of qualifying in the bunker and said to the photographers: “I’ll see you next year, guys.”

His bizarre appearance triggered a media hype, reporters even turned up for an interview in front of his mother’s door.

When informed of his less than impressive score, she hilariously replied, “Well, he has to start somewhere, doesn’t he?”

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When spectators showed up to see the main event, Maurice got close enough to a young Severiano Ballesteros – who later won five major championships – to be pictured together.

However, his media profile made him a thorn in the side of the establishment – and the R&A acted desperately to take action against the man who had ridiculed the sport.

“He hated the bad advertising – he thought he was good”

When Maurice reapplied the following year, he was told by R&A secretary Keith Mackenzie that his application was unsuccessful because he could not prove that his game had improved.

The furious amateur challenged Mackenzie to a round to prove his worth – after some back and forth, he was banned from any R&A course for life.

In response, Maurice tried to overwhelm the competition in the years to come by competing under a number of increasingly ridiculous names.

In 1978 he appeared as “Gene Paceki”, a reference to Danecki. From then on, his alter egos included Gerald Hoppy, James Beau Jolly, Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal.

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In order not to be spotted, he also wore a series of ridiculous disguises – a handlebar mustache dyed with food coloring and a stag stalker hat.

As a hoppy, Maurice managed nine holes, but most of the time he was dragged off the course by disgruntled R&A staff.

Driven to desperation, they even hired a handwriting expert for a year to look for the prankster.

“He hated Mackenzie, couldn’t stand him,” Trevor Kirkwood, a former buddy, told the Guardian.

“But what really bothered me was the bad publicity. He thought he was a good golfer. In later years he admitted he wasn’t, but he never thought he was a failure.”

While he was practically banned from any course in the UK, Maurice’s exploits made him a cult hero within the sport.

Before his death in 2007, he and his wife were invited to a tournament in the USA as a guest of honor.

In a typically funny way, he remarked that it was the first time they had left the house “since our gas stove exploded”.

The full release of The Phantom Of The Open is scheduled for April.

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