Maurice Flitcroft, the greatest gatecrasher in the history of golf, died 13 years ago yesterday. I interviewed him many moons ago. This story ran in the July 2001 issue of the long-lost Maximum Golf magazine.
The British Open has spawned a century and a half of legends, from Old Tom Morris to Young Tom Watson to… Maurice G. Flitcroft?
While he never come within shouting distance of the Claret Jug, Flitcroft occupies a special place in Open history. Indeed, the 71-year-old retiree from Barrow-in-Furness, England, may be the greatest hacker in the history of any major. He’s certainly the most determined.
The 1976 Open saw the emergence of two remarkable players: One was Severiano Ballesteros, then a 19-year-old phenom who held off Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale for the better part of four days before finishing in a tie for second to the flaxen-haired American. The other was Flitcroft, then a 46-year-old crane operator.
Although he had taken up golf just 18 months earlier, Flitcroft had set his sights on the Open. “I’d read about it and thought it would be great to achieve that standard,” he says. After studying instructional articles by 1966 PGA Championship winner Al Geiberger and honing his skills in a field near his home, Flitcroft obtained an entry form for the ‘76 Open qualifier. With no handicap to declare as an amateur, he picked the other option on the application: professional. Soon he was stepping onto the first tee at Formby, buoyed by what can only be described as delusional optimism. It would be his first full 18.
“I’d played nine-hole rounds,” he says. “That was it.”
That first round put Flitcroft into the record books. He blitzed the course in 121 strokes, which is believed to be the highest qualifying-round score in the Open’s 141-year history.
“Does that mean he’s won it?” his mother reportedly asked when told of her son’s achievement. Informed that her boy had failed miserably, she said, “Well, he has to start somewhere.”
The Royal & Ancient disagreed. Given his performance, and having misrepresented his playing status on his application, Flitcroft found himself effectively banned from the Open. He took his lumps and sat out in 1977, but he came back strong in 1978 and 1981, posing as a professional named Gene Pacecki (“As in pay check,” Flitcroft explains), stealing his way into qualifying rounds at South Herts. Both times he was busted after a few holes and asked to leave the course.
“I wasn’t hurting anybody, I wasn’t doing anyone out of a place,” Flitcroft says, still stung by his treatment. “Whether I entered or not didn’t have any effect on anybody else.”
“He was hurting his playing partners,” sniffs an R&A spokesman.
In 1983, displaying the single-mindedness that has been the hallmark of many an Open champion, Flitcroft masqueraded as Swiss pro ‘Gerald Hoppy’ to enter a qualifier at Pleasington. He made it to the 10th tee—in 63 strokes—before the R&A realized its old nemesis was back. Flitcroft insists that all the attention was a distraction. “I was under more pressure than anyone else,” he says earnestly. “I had qualifying to contend with and being recognized.”
To the relief of tournament officials, Flitcroft disappeared. Sort of.
His commando assaults on the mother of all majors turned Flitcroft into a cult figure. Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, Michigan, named its member-guest tournament in his honor. “It started as a lark,” says Buddy Whitten, Blythefield’s head pro. “But most people can’t break 90 so they relate more to Maurice than they would to a touring pro.”
The 22nd Maurice G. Flitcroft Member-Guest Tournament, held in May, 2000, featured a green with two holes so that even errant approaches were rewarded; another green had a 12-inch cup. In 1988, Flitcroft was flown in to play the event. He told club members it was the first time he and his wife had been out of the house together “since their gas oven exploded.”
“It was a different sort of experience,” Whitten says. “I’d never met a crane operator from England. But his game had gotten a little better than I expected. I think he shot in the low 90s.”
“I wasn’t playing too well,” Flitcroft says. “Some faults had crept into my swing. But I hit a lot of good shots.”
Playing in front of a crowd relit the fire in Flitcroft’s belly. Back in Britain, in the 1990 Open qualifier at Ormskirk, “James Beau Jolley” was an almost-respectable three over through two holes and “looking at a par” on the third when a cartful of officials screeched to a halt in front of his approach to the green. The mustache and hair were a little darker and the score a little better, but Flitcroft was still Flitcroft. He argued in vain before being booted once again.
Flitcroft is now old enough to be classified as a Super Senior, but his swing is hampered by osteoarthritis and an artificial hip. “I’m sure the R&A will be delighted to hear that,” he quips, adding, “Anyway, I still want to get qualified for the Open.”
“He won’t get in,” insists an R&A spokesman.
Regardless, Flitcroft—who 25 years after his first qualifier still has no official handicap—has secured a place in history. “All these Open champions have been forgotten,” he says, “and I’ll still be remembered.”
He may be right, for such is Flitcroft’s renown that he has received mail addressed simply to: Maurice Flitcroft, Golfer, England.
Maximum Golf, July 2001