TheIt’s a wonderful scene in the new movie “The Phantom of the Open” in which the real character named Maurice Flitcroft – the great impersonator who tried five times to qualify for the Open Championship under various aliases – has a sweet meeting in the locker room at Formby Golf Club with 19-year-old Severiano Ballesteros.
“Are you nervous?” Seve asks his middle-aged acquaintance.
“Yes and no,” said Maurice.
“Aren’t you getting nervous? said Sap.
“You see, a mistake, for me, is an opportunity to learn something new about golf,” Flitcroft says in hesitant Spanish. “What did I do wrong? How can I do [pause] good-er? …Love your mistakes, Seve, and you can’t go wrong.
“See you next time,” said Ballesteros.
“Hasta cajones”, malaprops Flitcroft. “Up to the testicles,” reads the captioned translation.
Flitcroft is ingeniously played by Sir Mark Rylance. You know him for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’, but the former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (1995-2005) also won three Tony Awards. If you google “greatest stage actor of his generation”, Mark Rylance is the first name to pop up, so we’re not dealing with a 10-year handicap here. Think of Bill Murray’s role in “Caddyshack” as if he were played by Sir Laurence Olivier.
First you have to realize that this is not a golf movie. It’s a love affair with the better half played by Sally Hawkins, who starred in “The Shape of Water.” In marriage, this crane operator from an English shipyard promises him a life of “champagne, caviar, diamonds, we will travel the world together”, he says.
It begins with a lesson from his Scottish violin teacher who infuses young Maurice with the spirit of a dreamer. “Practice,” he said. “Practice is the path to perfection.” In 1975, watching Tom Watson beat Jack Newton to win his first Open, Flitcroft invoked a revelation: “I’m going to have a shot at the British Open.” He ticks the box marked “professional” in his Royal and Ancient application thereby bypassing the need to have his skills checked, which puts him in the qualifying round for the 1976 Open having never played 18 holes before. When a reporter shows up after Flitcroft’s first round, his wife, Jean, naturally asks, “How did he do it?”
“He shot 121,” he was told. “It’s the highest score in majors history.”
“Does that mean he won?” She answers.
In reality, the conversation was with his mother over the phone, but we give Hollywood some license. He shot a 61 on the outside nine at Formby before coming back with a 60-49 over par. As Golf Digest reported at the time: “The 11th and 12th were estimates rather than accurate counts, and they were marred by a par 4 on the 420-yard 14th hole.” Peter Dobereiner wrote: “Officials suggested with some vigor that he need not bother to continue.”
In the film, Maurice explains: “I don’t feel that the score accurately reflects my piece.”
But history is not a collection of one-liners; it is rather the poignant denouement of a romantic with which we can all identify. The bane of Flitcroft resumed in 1983 as he slipped through the R&A net again by impersonating a disguised Swiss professional, Gerard Hoppy, and shooting 63 on the front nine before authorities apprehended him .
“I like playing the underdog,” Rylance told me on a Zoom call from filming his next movie. “There were times when while waiting for a scene to start, I would hit the ball all over the place like Maurice. I never took any lessons; I thought that would be counterproductive. But then there was this single hit when I connected, and the ball would fly through the air and land a few feet from the hole. I had this feeling of being. . . blessed. There was almost a sense of divine grace in what happened. There was a purity in the action and – I don’t know – maybe God had actually contributed to it.
“This letter that Maurice sends to the R&A which, through an administrative error, is accepted – it is the hand of God, which we feel in our lives all the time. The world responds to our dreams, on occasion.
“It’s like when I was 28 and appeared before an audience of accomplished actors and critics at the Royal Shakespeare Company and uttered the phrase ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ and I was saying it as if for the first time it had been said. Or telling a joke on Broadway or delivering a tragic line in a play. The golf swing is the same kind of singular act, except it involves the movement of a piece of metal on the end of a club. In all of these things you have to remember to breathe, to connect your imagination to your body. At least that’s how I can relate to golf There is a feeling of magic when things go well.
Rylance speaks with the rhythm of a poet. (Is that a gold earring in her left lobe?) Her voice has a familiar quality — it’s really her way of speaking — and a wry irony comes naturally to her roles. Like the film, it evokes an appreciation for dreamers. I want to blame Flitcroft for disrupting the Open and perhaps distracting other serious competitors who were trying to do their best. But I’m won over by the humanity of Rylance’s and Hawkins’ performances.
Producers usually get all it takes, except for two puffs. The qualifying rounds were never shown by the BBC, so Flitcroft’s bravery actually went unnoticed on TV, as shown in the film. It was left to journalists to make him infamous the world over.
Second, the actor who portrayed the surly R&A club secretary looks more like an Edinburgh banker than the lion-headed Keith Mackenzie I knew, who should have been played by Michael Gambon. It’s Mackenzie in his hoarse voice who utters the phrase “Champion Golfer of the Year” announcing the winner of the Open.
At its lowest, when embarrassment follows failure and even his twin sons’ disco-dancing careers crumble, Flitcroft admits his dreams have disappointed the family: “The world is not an oyster; it’s just a barnacle. Wait, Maurice, life is better in movies when the worst score wins, not the best, and redemption comes with a surprisingly true ending when it’s celebrated in America. The timing might be a little off, but in his final moment of glory, it makes perfect sense for ‘The Phantom of the Open’ to be presented at a banquet by a handsome young black golfer who just won a victory in the US Amateur and about playing his first Masters.
After all, golf is the stuff dreams are made of.