Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)

Dave Kindred

The Great Pretender: Recalling Open Championship gatecrasher Maurice Flitcroft

June 25, 2007

Maurice Flitcroft finds trouble during a Open Championship qualifying round in 1976. He shot 121. (Photo: Golf Digest Resource Center)

The day he did the 121, Maurice G. Flitcroft suffered from the aches and pains of lumbago and fibrositis. Perhaps distracted by his ailments, he made wrong turns driving to the golf course and arrived too late to warm up properly. Such was his rush to history that he then barely had time to change his shoes and sip tea from his flask. He even left his faithful 4-wood in his car boot. We shall see that these are the accidents of fate from which immortality is fashioned, for on that day Maurice G. Flitcroft took his place in golf's pantheon of iconic figures, a man who reached for the stars, only to fall off the ladder into a bucket of paint.

Six times in all, he attempted to qualify for the Open Championship. Four after that day, he needed an alias. Once, on that day, he made a par.

And now comes news that Maurice G. Flitcroft is dead. An obituary appeared in The Daily Telegraph of London. The newspaper said he died on March 24 at age 77, a lung infection. He was identified as "a chain-smoking shipyard crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness" who gained notice by "persistent attempts to gatecrash the British Open golf championship."

The report of his death prompts one question: You sure?

Maurice G. Flitcroft's disappearance has been reported before, only to have him show up for Open qualifying where veddy proper gentlemen in tweed suits itched to have at his throat.

He never understood the Royal & Ancient's distress. It was only a game, and he loved it. He'd come to golf late after reading a Peter Alliss instruction manual and watching an Al Geiberger video. By mail, he ordered half a set of clubs. He practiced bunker shots from the long-jump pit of an athletic field. In his back yard, he putted into buried coffee cans.

"I discovered I really liked the game, and I picked it up pretty quick," he told the London journalist Lawrence Donegan. "I used to practice every night, sometimes for as much as an hour or two." Occasionally, he wandered near a golf course. "I'd park at the perimeter and nip over the fence and hit a few shots."

He told Donegan he had put his small, wiry frame to good use as a schoolboy athlete and as a stuntman for a traveling theater group. "I was pretty great at everything," he said. In the early winter months of 1976, he decided it was time to enter the world's oldest and most distinguished golf championship.

He was 46 and living on Social Security. For that summer's Open, he borrowed the $75 entry fee from his wife, Jean. When the entry form requested information on his handicap, he skipped that part—he'd never played 18 holes—and signed in as an unattached professional.

On the first tee for the qualifying round at Formby, Flitcroft aroused suspicion from partner Jim Howard. "After gripping the club like he was intent on murdering someone," the witness told reporters after, "Flitcroft hoisted it straight up, came down vertically, and the ball travelled precisely four feet."

However greatly they were offended by the mechanics of Maurice G. Flitcroft, the tweed suits had no authority to rule a man off once he started.

There came what one observer called "a blizzard of triple and quadruple bogeys ruined by a solitary par." Flitcroft's 121 was 49 over par, still the worst score in the Open's history.

He offered an explanation. After bollixing the first tee shot, he abandoned his driver. "I got the 3-iron out and played safe, except I wasn't that great with the 3-iron. I should have used the 4-wood, but I'd left that in the car." Flitcroft added, wistfully, "I was an expert with the 4-wood, deadly accurate."

Word of Flitcroft's performance reached tournament headquarters at Royal Birkdale, where reporters wanted the thrilling details. But R&A officials at the qualifying site had hustled Flitcroft away without comment. One enterprising journalist spoke to the history maker's mother. She asked, "Oh, has he won?"

Quite not.

"Oh, well," she said. "Everybody has to start somewhere."

Flitcroft tried to enter five more Opens but made it past suddenly vigilant R&A authorities only twice—first in 1984 as Gerald Hoppy, a pro from Switzerland. That year he shot 63 for nine holes before officials realized they had another Maurice Flitcroft on their hands. "Imagine their surprise," Flitcroft said, "when they discovered they had the actual Maurice Flitcroft on their hands."

His stature had been set for all time—and set so well that his fame extended across the Atlantic to Grand Rapids, Mich., where brothers Terry and Tim Moore decided Blythefield Country Club should name its spring member-guest event in Flitcroft's honor.

"In the glow of making a hole-in-one in the first Flitcroft, I thought, Wouldn't it be great to bring Maurice over for the tournament? " Terry Moore says.

In May 1988, Flitcroft and his wife came to Michigan. The man himself spoke to gathered worshipers at the Blythefield club. He said one relative was so astonished by the Flitcrofts' marital adventure that she said, "It's the first time they've been out of the house together since the gas oven exploded."

The American trip re-energized the rogue. After disappearing for seven years, he tried the Open again in 1990. Flitcroft-as-Paychecki played only two holes and part of a third before the R&A collared him again.

The name Paychecki might have been a bow of deference to the first man, the Milwaukee postal worker Walter Danecki, who made his major-championship debut with credentials that on close inspection would have shown more enthusiasm than accomplishment.

Danecki entered the Open Championship in 1965, bold in his thought long before Maurice Flitcroft. "I wanted that crock of gold," Danecki said. In his first qualifying round, the American shot 108. Officials incorrectly guessed Danecki would go home rather than tee it up again. He shot 113 the next day for a 221 total.

Danecki died two years ago, always a golfer. "We dragged those darned clubs all over the U.S.," his widow, Olive, says. And he was forever proud of his Open adventure. "He didn't make the cut, but he went. Some people wanted to make a joke out of it. But he wasn't a joke. Why be embarrassed? How many of us would ever have had that much courage, to do what we dreamed of doing? My Wally did."

So did Our Maurice.