Flitcrocft tried to con his way into US Open

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Qualifying for the US Open is arguably one of the most difficult things an amateur or professional golfer can attempt, and that is without the added difficulty of being forced to play with absolute hacker.

I am old enough to remember Maurice Flitcroft, a fellow who achieved notoriety when he managed to worm his way into the qualifying tournament for the 1976 Open Championship. Flitcroft, a chain-smoking crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, worked out that by declaring himself to be a professional golfer, he would be able to compete. To say the least, he was somewhat lacking in ability as a golfer, and scored a total of 49-over par – 121 for his first 18 holes. Flitcroft may have considered his attempt to qualify for the revered Open little more than a lark, but understandably his fellow qualifiers took a dim view of what was a blatant hoax, and his playing partners successfully demanded a refund of their entrance fees.

But the damage had been done, as he had obviously rattled those who were unfortunate enough to play with, or behind him. They might have smelled a rat before teeing off, because Flitcroft had a dodgy-looking golf bag containing a half set of mail order golf clubs. The R@A immediately changed the rules for players entering qualifying for the Open (as well as banning Flitcroft), but that didn’t stop him from continuing to try and enter the Open qualifying and other elite events by using unconvincing pseudonyms such as Arnold Palmtree and disguising himself by wearing a false moustache and dark glasses. After his death, Flitcroft’s antics were immortalised in a biography, The Phantom of the Open, which was made into a film last year.

PHOTO: CHAIN SMOKING CON ARTIST… But a film was made in Maurice’s honour!

Every year, around 9,000 golfers try to qualify for the US Open. Amateurs must have a maximum handicap of 1.4 to enter, which still doesn’t stop golfers who have no hope of qualifying from joining those that have a reasonable chance. Merely managing to get through the first round of qualifying, which whittles all the local or regional numbers down to around 600 players, is not easy. This year a total 660 players made it to final qualifying played over 36 holes, of which 49 made it into the field for the main event in Brookline. Among these were professionals who hold PGA Tour cards, others who play on minor Tours, and a handful of highly touted amateurs – most of these attend colleges on golf scholarships, and on any given day they can post some seriously low scores.  

Still, out of all these talented hopefuls, we find those few who are no better than high-handicap, weekend golfers. Among these almost 9,000 qualifiers, a total of 13 failed to break 100. Let’s be serious – no half-decent golfer that believes they can compete in a Major Championship, has any business joining genuine qualifiers if they score so poorly. Even for the most focused, mentally tough players, being drawn to play with one of these clowns can be no joke. 

Officials invariably put a group ‘on the clock’ once they lag behind the group in front, so genuine competitors can face the prospect of being penalised just because they have been drawn to play with someone who doesn’t have a clue. One such competitor in this year’s qualifying tournament in Kansas City zig-zagged his way around the course, scoring a total of 112. It was reported that this individual had lost a bet (something to do with the fantasy football league), and as payment he had to play in the qualifier. This wasn’t even the highest score, and another qualifier shot 113, and was interviewed by Golf Digest after his horrendous performance. He was unrepentant, and maintained that difficult conditions, including high winds and rain, was to blame for his less-than-stellar score. This is simply rubbish – a scratch player in gale force winds or monsoon rains will find a way to break 90 at least, but 113?   

So how do these imposters get past the scrutiny of the USGA officials that run these events? The truth is, misrepresenting their ability is not that difficult. If an individual is registered on the handicapping system, entering a bunch of bogus scores will soon get their handicap down to the required level to gain them eligibility to play. It is only after the fact that the officials act, but by then it is bit late. In the case of the US Open, I accept that it is difficult to undertake a thorough check on the credentials of all 9,000 entrants.          

USGA officials explain that once all the local qualifying has been completed, scores that are 10 strokes above the course rating are flagged, and these players receive a letter asking them to submit bona fides (such as their scores from other events). If they fail to do so, they are suspended from playing in any more events under the control of the governing body. The more determined imposters could change their names (something like Jack Knuckles or Tiger Forrest?) and with a fictitious handicap, still manage to slip through the net.

In my youth I did my fair share of qualifying for various events, and only once was I partnered by a player who was truly hopeless. It turned out that this fellow had the advantage of very wealthy parents who were happy to indulge him in his passion, and he toured the world playing in qualifying events. In fairness, he was good company (and insisted on paying the hefty bill at the 19th afterwards), and I couldn’t accuse him of adversely affecting my play. He did break 100, if not by much, and I would have fancied him to beat Maurice Flitcroft, as well as some of this year’s US Open qualifiers.  -IRC.

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