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.
To a jaundiced observer, golf debates must have all the obvious relevance of a couple of tweedy academics bickering over the best translation of Beowulf between draws on their pipes. No debate is more fractious than that surrounding distance, which has for years rumbled along like a freight train in the night. During that time friendships have been sundered, garments rended, pearls clutched and block buttons exhausted. To casual fans it must seem like golf esoterica; to those who care, it’s golf in extremis, an existential argument on the very future of the sport.
Ours is a game of byzantine conventions, so it’s unsurprising that many drive-by spectators believe it hasn’t evolved in years, that it remains the domain of those who prefer the way things used to be, regardless of what those things are. The reality is that golf, like an aging Hollywood actress, shows marked change if you know where to look. Only now have we reached a moment when its wheezy statutes begin to catch up.
For much of its 31-year history, the Senior British Open delivered better quality venues than champions. For every Gary Player there was a Bruce Vaughan, for every Tom Watson a Tom Wargo. But even Vaughan won at Royal Troon and Wargo at Royal Lytham.
The tournament has grown in stature since becoming a major on the PGA Tour Champions. The fields are deeper and the faces more recognizable, but this is still an event where old men can chase fading dreams over a celebrated, rumpled links.
When that links is the Old Course in St. Andrews, which hosted the Senior Open for the first time last week, there are plenty more dreamers than the 156 spots in the field can accommodate. Even the old are not immune to the lure of the Old.