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Review -- The Phantom of the Open

Movie brings to life the true story of the underdog's quest to play the Open

 

Warning – May contain spoilers

It was July 1976 and the fourth round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. The Open was well underway with a young 19-year old Spaniard in the lead, chased by a trio of American players. Johnny Miller, 1973 US Open champion and golf’s best player at the time started the day 2-shots back of 19-year old leader Severiano (Seve) Ballesteros and was playing in the final pair with Seve. Three groups ahead were Ray Floyd, the 1976 Masters champion, and Jack Nicklaus. The final round would end with Johnny Miller carding a 66 for a tournament score of 279 – a six stroke margin of victory over both Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros. Floyd would finish alone in 4th place.

But as notable as the golf was at Royal Birkdale, another spectacle very nearly stole the Open Championship spotlight in the Qualifying rounds to even play in the main event. Maurice Flitcroft was a shipyard crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, when he caught the “golf bug”. The 1970’s was a period of economic dislocation in Britain, which eventually gave rise to Margaret Thatcher, and blue collar workers like Flitcroft were staring at the prospect of being permanently laid off in mid-life. That’s when Flitcroft came upon the idea of entering a Qualifying event for the Open even though he had never played a round of golf up to that point in life. He ordered a half-set of golf clubs and set about trying to learn enough of the game to compete at the Open. Unsure of how to apply for the Qualifying event and with no handicap, Flitcroft proceeded to register as a “professional”.

What followed that summer was one part farce, one part determination, and another part inspiration as Flitcroft recorded the highest ever score in qualifying for the Open Championship, carding a score of 121, +49 strokes above par. It remains the highest score ever recorded at the Open. In later years, Flitcroft would attempt to qualify again, using pseudonyms to register as he had formally been prohibited from competing again. Some of his pseudonyms included Gerald Hoppy, Gene Paycheki, and James Beau Jolley. With the help of his wife Jean, he created a matching persona to go with the names, including elaborate disguises to evade detection from the Open officials.

Whether it was intended to be a farce or an innocent or naïve attempt to fulfill an ambition remains uncertain. Only Maurice Flitcroft and perhaps his wife Jean were the only people to have known for certain. Regardless, the story is surely of the underdog – a man of the people, trying to qualify to play in the Open and in the process, challenging the preconceived notions of golf being a sport exclusively for the well to do and the upper class. The Open Championship, like Wimbledon (tennis) represented the pinnacle of British sport.

Maurice Flitcroft and son walking down the fairway
Maurice Flitcroft with one of his sons caddying during Qualifying

The Flitcroft saga was about the ongoing democratization of the sport set against the social and economic upheaval that was 1970’s Great Britain. Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) plays the main role of Maurice Flitcroft, bringing the erstwhile golfer to life with a combination of wit, hope, and despair. Flitcroft comes to terms with the profound changes underway by embracing the opportunities that come with such change and for Flitcroft, that was the sport of golf. Trying to embody his mantra of “practice is the road to perfection”, Flitcroft sets out to master enough of the golf basics to qualify for the Open – or at the very least, honourably acquit himself and his performance on the course.

Unfortunately for Flitcroft, he did not understand the raw and brutal truth in golf – there is no such thing as perfection. Golf is a sport about managing both one’s expectations and one’s mistakes. There may be a perfect shot, but there is never a perfect round of golf or as Ben Hogan is quoted as having said – golf is a game of “missed shots” and whoever misses the best wins. Undaunted, Flitcroft’s optimistic nature carries him and his family through it, though not without some “speed bumps” along the way.

Actors Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance in a scene from the movie
Actors Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance deliver a touching on-screen moment as the Flitcrofts
 

Sally Hawkins, known for her roles in The Shape of Water, Maudie, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, plays the role of Flitcroft’s wife Jean. The two-time Academy Award nominee delivers a terrific portrayal of Jean with some of the most tender and heartfelt moments in the movie – none more so than when she searches for her distraught husband after an altercation with his sons. Jean opens her heart to her sons, sharing her personal story of how her life changed for the better after meeting Maurice. It is a touching scene that Hawkins pulls of beautifully, delivering the perfect balance of understated nuance and subtlety with emotion. She is able to do it without her performance being over the top or becoming melodramatic.

Maurice Flitcroft in disguise trying to sneak back into the Open
In disguise as Gerald Hoppy

It is a delightful movie that audiences will enjoy. The golfers in the audience will appreciate many of the golf scenes, relating to the ineptness of Maurice Flitcroft whether it be a likeness of themselves or that person that plays in their foursome. For non-golfers, there is enough humour and social commentary to keep one laughing and engaged. The movie is rated PG-13 and opens initially in Vancouver (Cineplex International Village Mall) and Toronto (Cineplex – Yonge & Dundas) before gradually expanding to other centres across the country.

 

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