The Phantom of the Open tells the charming true story of the world's worst golfer

click to enlarge The Phantom of the Open tells the charming true story of the world's worst golfer
Maurice Flitcroft is more Carl Spackler than Tiger Woods.

In a typical underdog sports movie, the unlikely athlete finally makes it to the big championship at the climax, getting the long-awaited chance to prove their skills to all the doubters. For real-life golfer Maurice Flitcroft, played by Mark Rylance in The Phantom of the Open, the high-profile championship is just the beginning of the story.

In 1975, the middle-aged Maurice works as a crane operator at a shipyard in a coastal England town, fearing impending layoffs. He's put his dreams aside for the sake of raising a family with his wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), and he's proud of his three sons. But when Jean encourages him to find a new passion now that the kids are getting older and he may not have his job for much longer, Maurice latches on to the idea of becoming a professional golfer.

Never mind that he has no experience or knowledge or equipment — he catches a golf tournament on TV late one night and is hooked. With a combination of naïveté and determination, he decides to enter the prestigious British Open, which involves simply filling out a form and mailing it in. Maurice fudges a few details, no one in the tournament office notices or cares, and suddenly he's playing in the first round of the 1976 British Open alongside the sport's top contenders.

This is not the story of an unassuming amateur who stunned the golf world with his remarkable abilities. Maurice is, by all measures, a terrible golfer. In that one round at the 1976 Open, Maurice racks up the worst score in the history of the competition. But he captures the imagination of reporters and fans, the kind of people always looking for a unique angle on an often predictable sporting event. Before the movie's halfway mark, Maurice is back home, his one moment of potential glory behind him.

Writer Simon Farnaby (adapting his own nonfiction book) and director Craig Roberts focus more on Maurice's humble working-class life than on his sports stardom, making The Phantom of the Open into a likable, low-key family dramedy. Hawkins brings sensitivity and honesty to the stock role of Maurice's supportive wife, and twins Christian and Jonah Lees are amusing as Maurice's twin sons, who pursue their own offbeat dream of becoming champion disco dancers.

There's some contrived conflict between Maurice and his oldest son, Michael (Jake Davies), who's embarrassed by the press attention on his dad's antics and prefers to live a respectable life as a middle manager. That's mostly an excuse to add emotional stakes to the story, as Maurice continues to clash with a stuffy golf official (Rhys Ifans) and makes multiple subsequent attempts to enter the Open via various aliases and disguises. Although the golf establishment isn't amused, Maurice's deceptions are mostly harmless, and he becomes a bit of a folk hero over time. A tearful reconciliation between father and son eventually feels like sentimental overkill.

Most of The Phantom of the Open is as subdued and charming as Rylance's performance, though, avoiding the manipulative clichés of sports movies even as it embellishes its fact-based source material. Roberts adds in occasional fantasy sequences as Maurice is overcome by his love for golf, granting a sense of whimsy to a sport not known for its quirks or levity. Like Maurice, the movie challenges the classist elitism of golf via gentle humor, never pushing too hard. The filmmakers keep things warm and reassuring, enveloping the audience in a feeling of comfort. It's easy to be won over by Maurice Flitcroft, but his story doesn't leave much of a lasting impression. ♦

Two and a Half Stars THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN
Rated PG-13
Directed by Craig Roberts
Starring Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Jake Davies

Bing Crosby Holiday Film Festival @ Bing Crosby Theater

Sat., Dec. 9, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
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