Phantom of the Open (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

A sentimental ending and Oscar winner Mark Rylance (The Bridge of Spies, 2015) can’t save this latest tribute to that particularly British phenomenon – the loser. While no doubt this is in essence the true story of golfing wannabe Maurice Flitcroft who gained some kind of notoriety – and latterly some celebrity – as the world’s worst golfer after posting, on live television, by a long way the worst score in British Open history, it’s plagued with a woeful attempt at no-hoper charm that just doesn’t work.

Rylance (Maurice Flitcroft) is part of the problem. He could be a cousin to Jim Broadbent’s dour character in The Duke, but where Broadbent comes to life in the second half, Rylance does not, a one-note performance that fails to elicit any sympathy for the character. Where do I start with what is wrong with the picture?

Well, for a start, the idea that a crane driver is an awful job. My grandfather was a crane driver in the shipyards in Clydebank and it was a skilled and highly-prized job and earned him a little bit more than the other workers down below and instead of moaning about his job he drove on his children to become educated – my mother among three of the family to go to university in World War Two Glasgow. Clearly, also, “poor” Maurice earned enough to put down a deposit on a house, a big achievement in the 1960s.

And the idea that Maurice had never heard of golf until the mid-1970s seemed preposterous when hardly 80 miles away Tony Jacklin, the son of a steel worker, won the British Open at Royal Lytham St Annes in 1969. The whole of Britain was electrified. I remember with my brother peering through the window of a television shop to watch it live on television. Equally preposterous is the notion that golf was a middle-class hobby. I remember as a teenager just after Jacklin’s famous win caddying for my father at a public golf course, which required no payment of annual fees nor wearing of fancy golfing ensembles. Golf was far from a hobby restricted to the well-off.

The closest loser-hero to Flitcroft is British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle (also filmed) but Eddie was at least a recognized and official contender in his sport. He did not try to sneak in the back door without doing any of the endless training necessary for anyone who wants to compete at a high level. It’s just crazy to set Flitcroft up as some kind of official-tweaking hero, when he simply managed to gain entry to the Open by cheating. The closest comparison in golf in the winner-from-nowhere category was John Daly who won a major in the U.S. in 1991, only qualifying after one of the contenders dropped out, but he had been a professional golfer for four years by that time.

And I hate this grim mud-tainted view of the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in that period and certainly don’t recognize the picture painted. Flitcroft’s children, luckily, didn’t inherit the delusional gene, his twins becoming world champion disco dancers and his other son becoming a successful businessman.

Flitcroft just wanted glory without any of the hard work and it’s hard to find any sympathy for such a delusional man. Anyone who pointed out to Flitcroft just how delusional he was received short shrift in the film. Woe betide any official who thought this character was going to bring derision to golf, at a time when the sport was going through a revival, thanks to Jacklin who would inspire a generation of even better golfers like Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.

It’s almost a cosmic joke that everyday golfers looked upon Flitcroft as their idol simply because he played the game as badly as they did and that he received some kind of celebrity as a result. Odd, too, that nobody’s ever thought to make a film about a true winner like Tony Jacklin.

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