“No one can say you didn’t try.”
I’m not a fan of watching or playing golf, but I am in awe of those who can play at the professional level. That’s because I’m absolutely awful at it. Craig Roberts’s The Phantom of the Open is the story of a novice who tries to play at the highest level of the golf world. Based on the true story of the man who was known as the worst golfer in the world, this film is a testament to being willing to keep at something, even when failure seems inevitable. Perhaps it’s not winning that matters, but doing your best—even if your best is nowhere near good.
Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) is a crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness. It’s 1976 and the nationalizing of the shipyards may put his job at risk. When he learns that the British Open golf tournament has a prize of £10,000, he decides that he’ll enter and the money will take care of his family. Of course, Maurice has never played golf, so he gets some books and clubs and practices mostly on the beach, since he’s not a member of the golf club and couldn’t afford green fees if he were. (Although he does sneak on the course from time to time.)
He fills out the application for the Open, and through his ineptitude in even knowing what the questions mean, it is approved. So he heads to a qualifying round. He plays the worst round in the history of the open, shooting 121, 49 strokes over par. (This record still stands, and probably will forever.) The guardians of golf are appalled and ban him from clubs throughout Britain. But he becomes something of a folk hero when all this becomes known.
Maurice is determined that if they say it’s an open tournament, that he should be included. He continued to try to enter with names like Gerald Hoppy, Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal, and Arnold Palmtree, with elaborate disguises.
The film is more than just a humorous story of wrong-headed determination. It is also the story of a loving family that is caught up in Maurice’s obsession. It is the love story of Maurice and his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), who stands behind him throughout his eccentric fixation, even though it will never bring them money. He also has twin sons who dream to be professional disco dancers. They follow their father’s example of letting their passion guide them. But his eldest son, who has been to college and now works in the offices of the shipyard is embarrassed by his father’s antics and tries to distance himself, which isn’t easy with a name like Flitcroft.
What makes Maurice such a hero, both to the public and to viewers is that most of us are not the greatest in the world at what we do. There are a lot more people who play golf like Maurice than like the pros. Not being good at it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. My wife and I have taken up bridge. Sometimes we do well. Sometimes we don’t. We usually play with people at our level, but sometimes we play with people who have played for decades. We keep at it because we enjoy it, even when we make dumb mistakes.
Eventually, Maurice discovers that he has become an example and inspiration for people worldwide who will never win a tournament. Even the guardians of the game come to understand that golf is not always about winning or even playing well. As Maurice said in an interview at one point, “For every winner of a tournament, there are 499 losers.” The lesson Maurice brings us through this story is that we need to enjoy what we do and not worry about being the best. Nearly everyone spends their lives as part of the 499. It’s not really that bad of a way to live.
The Phantom of the Open is in general release.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.