Skip to main content

Maurice Flitcroft: The world's worst golfer

By James Montague, CNN
  • Maurice Flitcroft hoaxed his way into the 1976 British Open qualifying round
  • He went on to shoot remarkable 49-over-par 121, the worst score carded in Open history
  • The R&A subsequently banned him from playing on every golf course in the UK
  • But Flitcroft became a folk hero as he used different disguises to continue playing

London, England (CNN) -- When Maurice G. Flitcroft strode towards the first tee on an unseasonably hot English morning to begin his qualifying round for the 1976 British Open, few of the dozen or so spectators politely applauding the strangely-attired man believed they were about to witness history.

After all, the supposedly professional golfer -- sporting plastic shoes, a fishing hat, false teeth and a set of cheap mail-order clubs -- hardly looked like a world-beater.

The fact that the 46-year-old crane operator from a northern English town didn't have a handicap, or that he'd never played a full round of golf in his life, wasn't going to stop him either.

"The club came up vertical, and came down vertical," recalled Jim Howard, a promising pro who had been drawn with Flitcroft on that fateful day. "It was like he was trying to murder someone."

The ball traveled a few meters, just beyond the tee.

It was the opening salvo of a remarkable 49-over-par 121, the worst score ever carded in the Open's history -- a record that still stands today and is unlikely ever to be beaten.

Video: British open underway
Video: 2010 British Open preview

The British press had a field day. "Gate Crasher of the Century" ran one headline. "A British Open Chump: Trickster Takes 121" read another.

The Royal and Ancient, the body charged with running the sport, and its then secretary Keith Mackenzie were not pleased when they realized that Flitcroft had discovered a loophole.

When Flitcroft received an application form from the R&A requiring proof of his handicap, which every amateur was obliged to provide, he merely ticked the box marked: "Professional."

"We noticed something was wrong when he found he had 15 clubs in his golf bag and his caddy had to leave one in the shop," said Howard, who went on to become the first black golfer to join the British PGA.

Woods changes putter for historic British Open bid

"The R&A realized that something was amiss by the fourth hole as we had sent for an official to see for themselves. I don't think the people that were following were too impressed by his actions -- we certainly weren't."

Flitcroft was effectively banned by Mackenzie from every golf course in the country. That, the R&A thought, was that.

Little did they know that it was the start of an amazing story that would pit Flitcroft against the golfing establishment over the next two decades as he tried, tried and tried again to qualify for the Open in increasingly bizarre ways, making him a folk hero for hackers and sporting romantics alike on both sides of the Atlantic as he chased his improbable dream.

What followed was a cat and mouse game between Flitcroft and Mackenzie.

When the R&A introduced regional qualifiers to stop anyone like Flitcroft sullying the Open's good name again, Flitcroft merely applied under various pseudonyms.

The R&A realized that something was amiss by the fourth hole as we had sent for an official to see for themselves
--Jim Howard, golfer

He turned up with his mail-order clubs as Gene Pacecki, a partial nod to U.S. postal worker Walter Danecki who held the previous record for the worst round in Open history, as well as Gerald Hoppy, James Beau Jolly, Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred Von Hoffmenstal, among others.

Each time he turned up at a qualifying event he managed to avoid detection with a string of disguises: a large handlebar moustache dyed in food coloring was one; a deer-stalker hat was another.

But he would then be asked to leave after a succession of horrendous shots, long before he had reached the 10th hole, sometimes after being chased off by irate R&A officials. On one occasion they even employed a hand-writing expert to weed out the fake entries that Flitcroft sent.

British Open title really is up for grabs

Yet every time a loophole presented itself, Flitcroft drove a truck through it before the R&A had realized what was going on.

"Maurice was of the generation where you left school, you went to the shipyard and that was it, you were not to have any ideas above your station," explained Scott Murray, co-author of "Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, the World's Worst Golfer," a new book about Flitcroft's life released to coincide with this week's Open.

"He was always looking to better himself and didn't have that thing that most people have when they say: 'I'll play in my local club now and again.' He went straight for the kingpin, the Open. He told himself: 'I'm going to win the Open.' He was laughed at for that and was accused of being the Walter Mitty of golf, but he wasn't harming anyone, he just decided he was going to go for it."

He was laughed at and was accused of being the Walter Mitty of golf, but he wasn't harming anyone
--Scott Murray on Flitcroft
  • Golf
  • British Open

Flitcroft's battle with the R&A and especially Mackenzie -- who Murray describes as "20 percent flesh, 80 percent rulebook" -- went on well into the 1990s and is still a sore point with the organization.

According to Murray, the R&A was so embarrassed by Flitcroft's sustained attempts at entering the Open, it refused to officially comment on it while he researched his book. The R&A declined to comment when CNN asked a series of questions about its relationship with Flitcroft. (Mackenzie has since passed away.)

"The ironic thing about Mackenzie was that he was a modernizer," said Murray. "The Open was struggling back in the 1950s and 1960s. American players didn't bother coming over, but he made sure Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus got over.

"It sounds crazy now, but he introduced big scoreboards so people would know what was going on."