'Phantom of the Open': Real life story was 'Eddie the Eagle times a thousand' (exclusive)

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·8-min read

Watch: Trailer for The Phantom of the Open

Golf course chancer Maurice Flitcroft became notorious in the 1970s after he duped his way into the British Open and recorded a score of 49 over par — the worst in the competition's history.

His story is making its way to the big screen in new British comedy The Phantom of the Open, with screenwriter Simon Farnaby describing his underdog status as "Eddie the Eagle times a thousand".

Farnaby — a budding golfer in his youth — has been fascinated by Flitcroft's life for years, co-writing a book about his exploits almost a decade ago.

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The story is set in the Cumbrian port town of Barrow-in-Furness, following Flitcroft's journey from the shipyards to the fairway, with Sir Mark Rylance in the lead role and Craig Roberts in the director's chair.

Mark Rylance in Phantom of the Open and the real Maurice Flitcroft (eOne/Getty)
Mark Rylance in Phantom of the Open and the real Maurice Flitcroft (eOne/Getty)

Farnaby told Yahoo that he and Roberts were keen to bring some colour to the movie, rather than delivering a slice of bleak, kitchen-sink drama.

"This could've been a Ken Loach or a Mike Leigh kind of gritty, working class story. It is that sort of story, but I always wanted it to be a bit more Billy Liar than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," said Farnaby.

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He added: "When I talked to Craig, he was on the same page. Yes, it's a story about essentially a working class hero and it's set in Barrow, but it's going to be colourful and bright and fast and funny and bouncy and have a rocking soundtrack and have flights of fancy."

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: Simon Farnaby, Mark Rylance and Craig Roberts attend
Simon Farnaby, Mark Rylance and Craig Roberts attend "The Phantom Of The Open" World Premiere during the 65th BFI London Film Festival, 2021 (Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Golf is not a sport that traditionally features on the big screen, with Farnaby noting that there are very few examples of good films based around the game.

He said: "I suppose with [something like] boxing, it's all very immediate and in the frame, whereas in golf you hit the ball and it goes a long way and lands somewhere. There's a separation in terms of visual experience.

"Actually, there's not really a golf film that I love despite having loved golf. Caddyshack is pretty good, but the rest are pretty poor. I hate Happy Gilmore."

Read the full interview with Simon Farnaby, in which he reveals the unique way the movie shot golf scenes as well as the surprising influences chosen by director Craig Roberts in his vision for the film...

Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) takes to the beach to practice his swing in 'The Phantom of the Open'. (eOne)
Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) takes to the beach to practice his swing in 'The Phantom of the Open'. (eOne)

Yahoo Movies UK: Mr Flitcroft has been with you for a long time now. I'm intrigued to ask at which point you decided there was a film in this, as well as the book.

Simon Farnaby: Weirdly, I wrote the screenplay before the book, which was a mistake because I really didn't know what I was doing. I was so desperate to make it into a film. My dad was a greenkeeper and I wanted to be a professional golfer when I was young, but I failed because I wasn't quite good enough. I could've turned pro, but I wouldn't have been good enough to be on the telly. So I got into comedy.

When I saw Maurice's story, this was a chance to marry these two passions of my life — my past and my future. So I was like "I'm gonna write a screenplay about it and it's gonna be a big hit", but I only knew what was on the internet which, then, was nothing really. There were his obituaries when he died in 2007, a few quotes from him and a few photographs in the press. There wasn't really enough to go on to write a screenplay.

So I researched and wrote the book with Scott Murray and, by the time we'd done all of the research and interviewed all of his friends and found out so much more about his life, I was then able to write a proper screenplay or give it a good go. Then it improved a lot because I finally knew what I was doing. To answer your question, I thought it should be a screenplay too early. But I made it in the end.

It's interesting you say about there not being more information around because, if Maurice were to surface now, he'd be a social media sensation.

Maurice Flitcroft duped the golf establishment in order to compete at the British Open in 1976. (The People/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Maurice Flitcroft duped the golf establishment in order to compete at the British Open in 1976. (The People/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

That's right and, in fact, Maurice used to say that. He did interviews in the press with Lawrence Donegan and he said "I would have been famous now". That would've been in the early 2000s. He said: "I'd have been all over the place, like this Big Brother lot." He was headline news, but only in the tabloids at the time and there wasn't that much footage of him.

I mean, the only footage on YouTube is what me and Scott put on. Scott put this little reel together of all of the footage of him in America and, in fact, his appearance on breakfast TV that we allude to in the film, that's not available at all. We ought to put it on YouTube because it's hilarious. We got that footage from ITV.

There was nothing really around, which was great. Everybody knows Eddie the Eagle, but no one really knows this story and this is like Eddie the Eagle times a thousand. It's uber-Eddie the Eagle. Maurice the Albatross.

How did you manage to make golf exciting on the big screen, even when it's played as badly as it is by Maurice?

It probably helps that it's played badly. I think that's usually why it fails. I suppose with boxing it's all very immediate and in the frame, whereas in golf you hit the ball and it goes a long way and lands somewhere. There's a separation in terms of visual experience.

Actually, there's not really a golf film that I love despite having loved golf. Caddyshack is pretty good, but the rest are pretty poor. I hate Happy Gilmore.

Adam Sandler brought a unique style of golf to the big screen in 'Happy Gilmore'. (Universal/Getty Images)
Adam Sandler brought a unique style of golf to the big screen in 'Happy Gilmore'. (Universal/Getty Images)

I think it helps that it's bad because it gives you a frame that's a bit closer. When Maurice hits his first shot — which is dead true — what happened is he hit this shot that went straight up in the air and seemed to go for ages before coming down about 20 feet in front of him. Craig Roberts, the director, made that work really well. It's a credit to Craig really.

We had this pioneering drone shot of the ball, which Craig developed. I say pioneering, but I have no idea if it is or not.

We'll find out in the next five years when there are 20 new golf films and they're all using that shot.

That was the breakthrough for golf films. It made all golf films possible for the rest of time. But that does help, to see how the ball travelled. Credit goes to Craig for that.

This is very much a Northern story, but it's not a grim, dark, kitchen sink, bleak Northern story. I wanted to ask how important that element is to you?

Huge. I'm from the North East. Sort of Darlington, Stockton and it's pretty grim around there. This is North West, which is similar. But you're dead right. This could've been a Ken Loach or a Mike Leigh kind of gritty, working class story. It is that sort of story, but I always wanted it to be a bit more Billy Liar than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That's two very obscure references!

Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance in 'The Phantom of the Open'. (eOne)
Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance in 'The Phantom of the Open'. (eOne)

When I talked to Craig, he was on the same page. Yes, it's a story about essentially a working class hero and it's set in Barrow, but it's going to be colourful and bright and fast and funny and bouncy and have a rocking soundtrack and have flights of fancy.

He was talking about more American films like the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson. That was music to my ears. The Big Lebowski isn't about bowling, is it? Bowling is a backdrop and it's quite an amusing backdrop. It's exactly the same with this. Golf is an amusing backdrop for what is really a story about a guy who dreamed bigger than he was.

The Phantom of the Open is in UK cinemas from 18 March. Watch a clip below.

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