THERE’S A wonderful scene in the new motion picture “The Phantom of the Open” in which the real-life character named Maurice Flitcroft—the Great Impersonator who five times attempted to qualify for the Open Championship under various pseudonyms—has a sweet encounter in the locker room at Formby Golf Club with a 19-year-old Severiano Ballesteros.
“Are you nervous?” asks Seve of his middle-aged acquaintance.
“Yes and no,” Maurice says.
“You don’t get nervous?” Seve says.
“See, a mistake, for me, is an opportunity to learn something new about golf,” says Flitcroft in halting Spanish. “What did I do wrong? How can I do [pause] good-er? …Love your mistakes, Seve, and you can’t go wrong.”
“Until next time,” Ballesteros says.
“Hasta cajones,” malaprops Flitcroft. “Until testicles,” reads the captioned translation.
Flitcroft is played ingeniously 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) has also won three Tony Awards. If you Google “the greatest stage actor of his generation,” Mark Rylance is the first name to appear, so we’re not dealing with some 10-handicapper here. Think of the Bill Murray role in “Caddyshack” as if it were played by Sir Laurence Olivier.
First you need to realize this is not a golf movie. It’s a love story with the better half performed by Sally Hawkins, who starred in “The Shape of Water.” Proposing marriage, this crane operator at an English shipyard promises her a life of “champagne, caviar, diamonds—we’ll travel the world together,” he says.
It begins with a lesson by his Scottish violin teacher who instills in young Maurice the spirit of a dreamer. “Practice,” he says. “Practice is the road to perfection.” In 1975, watching Tom Watson beat Jack Newton to win his first Open, Flitcroft invokes a revelation: “I’m going to have a crack at the British Open.” He ticks the box marked “professional” in his Royal and Ancient application thereby circumventing the need to verify his skill, which gets him into the qualifying round for the 1976 Open never having played 18 holes before. When a reporter shows up after Flitcroft’s first round, his wife, Jean, naturally asks, “How’d he do?”
“He shot 121,” she’s told. “That’s the highest score in majors’ history.”
“Does it mean he won?” she folds.
In reality, the conversation was with his mother via the telephone, but we allow Hollywood some degree of license. He did shoot a 61 on the outward nine at Formby before returning with a 60—49 over par. As Golf Digest reported at the time: “The 11s and 12s were estimates rather than precise counts, and they were blemished by a par 4 on the 420-yard 14th hole.” Peter Dobereiner wrote: “Officials suggested with some vigor that he need not put himself to the trouble of continuing.”
In the movie, Maurice explains, “I don’t feel the score was a fair reflection of my play.”
But the story is not a collection of one-liners; it’s more the poignant unraveling of a romantic with whom we all can identify. The scurge of Flitcroft resumed in 1983 as he slipped through the R&A’s net again posing as a disguised Swiss professional, Gerard Hoppy, and shooting 63 on the front nine before officials apprehended him.
“I like to play the underdog,” Rylance told me on a Zoom call from the set of his next movie. “There were occasions when waiting for a scene to start, I’d be hitting the ball all over the place like Maurice. I never took any lessons; I thought it would be counterproductive. But then there’d be this one shot when I connected, and the ball would fly into the air and land a few yards from the hole. I had this feeling of being. . . wounded. There was almost a sense of divine grace in what happened. There was a purity to the action and—I don’t know—maybe God actually had a hand in it.
“That letter Maurice sends to the R&A that by some administrative mistake gets accepted—that’s the hand of God, which we sense in our lives all the time. The world answers our dreams, on occasion.
“It’s like when I was 28 years old and appearing before an audience of accomplished actors and critics at the Royal Shakespeare Company and spoke the line, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ and saying it as if for the first time it had ever 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, only it involves the movement of a hunk of metal at the end of a stick. In all 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’s a sense of magic when it all goes right.”
Rylance speaks with the lilt of a poet. (Is that a gold earring in his left lobe?) His voice has a familiar quality—it’s really the way he talks—and a wry irony comes naturally to his roles. Like the movie, he evokes an appreciation for dreamers. I want to rebuke Flitcroft for disrupting the Open and maybe distracting other serious competitors who were trying to do their best. But I’m won over by the humanity in the performances of both Rylance and Hawkins.
The producers mostly get everything right, save for two whiffs. Qualifying rounds were never broadcast by the BBC, so Flitcroft’s derring-do actually went unseen on the telly as depicted in the film. He was left to newspaper reporters to make him infamous worldwide.
Second, the actor who portrayed the harrumphing R&A club secretary more resembles an Edinburgh banker than the lion-headed Keith Mackenzie I knew, who should have been played by Michael Gambon. It was Mackenzie in his raspy voice who would utter the phrase “Champion Golfer of the Year” in announcing the Open winner.
At his lowest point, when embarrassment follows failure and even his twin sons’ disco-dancing careers crash, Flitcroft admits his dreams have let down the family: “The world’s not an oyster; it’s just a barnacle.” Hang on, Maurice—life’s better in the movies when the worst score wins, not the best, and redemption comes with a surprisingly true ending when he’s celebrated in America. The timing might be a little off, but in his final moment of glory, it makes total sense for “The Phantom of the Open” to be introduced at a banquet by a handsome young Black golfer coming off a victory in the US Amateur and about to play in his first Masters.
After all, golf is the stuff that dreams are made of.