‘You can save yourself a lot of shots if you keep things simple’ – could have been Pete Cowen’s first words to Rory McIlroy. Believe it or not, I was in receipt of similar advice from Pete at Formby in 1976, when we met accidentally, on the practice putting when both of us were attempting to qualify for the Seve debut Open at Birkdale, won by Johnny Miller. I was over-anxious and tense, but Pete said a few soothing and encouraging words that helped me enormously.
What happened later that same day went into the record books but Pete nor I had anything to do with it. It was the famous day that Maurice Flitcroft, a crane driver from Frilford Heath conned his way into the qualifying rounds of the 106th Open Championship.
I know what you are thinking. That I, too, had conned my way into the championship’s final qualifying stages. The facts are that IF I had submitted an entry form and marked it, “Professional” as Flitcroft had done, it might have been possible. The scrutiny in the ‘professional entries department’ in those days was extremely lax. As an amateur, I had to be given an endorsement by the GUI to verify my scratch handicap. Maurice simply wrote ‘Professional Golfer’ on his form. Pros don’t have handicaps.
I was frantically trying to come to grips with the quickest putting surfaces I had ever encountered and gratefully accepting an impromptu putting lesson from Pete Cowan, when a Marty Feldman lookalike from the movie farce, The Last Remake of Beau Geste suddenly materialised beside us. Flitcroft began scuttling balls in all directions, causing widespread mayhem and much grumbling.
Within minutes (before his antics raised the alarm) he was called to the 1st tee, three groups ahead of me. From behind the private hedge surrounding the first tee, he produced a rickety trolley and the oddest set of filthy golf clubs that had clearly seen better days
Instinctively, I knew something was awry. So did the perplexed R&A Starter who made a half-hearted effort to prevent Flitcroft from teeing off. But it was too late, the die was cast. Although nobody knew exactly what was in store, the 46-years old Maurice Flitcroft was about to enter the annals of Open Championship history.
121 strokes and five and a half hours later, Flitcroft was being treated like a celebrity, besieged by a bevy of eager golf reporters as he left Formby’s 18th green. “I wasn’t really ready for this championship. To be frank, I was a bit erratic but I did manage to pull it together towards the end of the round.”
Pulling it together better must have referred to the only par on his card at the 14th where after a wild, hook off the tee, he hacked back onto the fairway and skulled a mid-iron that clattered the flagstick and stopped dead in its scorching tracks within three feet of the hole.
“I’ve been inspired by watching golf on the telly. I bought some secondhand clubs and started to practice in the field behind my Mum’s house. I am completely self-taught, you know, I’ve always been a bit of an athlete. I thought it would be nice to play in The Open with Jack Nicklaus and all that lot. Some of those top stars have been at it for years. I haven’t reached my peak yet. I’m going to improve and be back next year, watch out! And if I manage to win, I’ll retire and take up painting. I’m quite an artist as well!”
Nor was that the end of Mr. Flitcroft. Believe it or not, he tried to tee it up again the following day but he was firmly escorted off the premises! Later in the week, I was dazzled by the swashbuckling golf of another unknown, this one aged 19. Spain’s, dashing Seve Ballesteros ‘announced himself’ to the world of golf and very nearly won The Open Championship at his first attempt.
Back to Rory’s troubles and Pete Cowen’s efforts to ‘find the lost chord’. Many moons ago when Rory was dominating the West Of Ireland as a 14-year old, the wise, head professional at Co. Sligo GC, Johnny McGonigle, used to say: Rory has the best natural swing he ever saw. As long as he doesn’t mess with it, he will be one of the best. I hope Pete follows his own advice and keeps his instructions to Rory simple while dismissing all doubts.