People are human. They covet almost anything that inspires them.
That’s why movies based on true stories are so popular. They give us hope. They posit that anything is possible if we simply try and try again in our brains. Even commoners can achieve goals, no matter the height of hurdles and level of loftiness.
This psychological truism takes us to the intersection of motivation and cinema in the form of The Phantom of the Open. This golf-themed yet poignant movie stars major actors and is set for national release in theaters on June 3. Mark that date on your “must-see” scorecard.
Thankfully, this golf writer attended a sneak-peak screening of Phantom – on a theater big screen a Callaway drive away from the PGA TOUR Honda Classic – because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and decidedly memorable hour and 42 minutes. I adored it as did wives, kids and hard-core golf buddies beside me. Several days later, it remains dinner table and 19th hole conversation.
Not to get too “Siskel & Ebert” on you, but I laughed, cried and ejected from my seat with optimism that even my wildest dreams, previously unattainable, are now within reach.
Following a smashing-hit run at U.K. film festivals, Sony Pictures Classics acquired distribution rights for America, and we should all give that company’s brass a rousing applause.
Based on the book of the same name by Simon Farnaby and Scott Murrary, Phantom tells the real-life story of Maurice Flitcroft. He’s a humble, 46-year-old shipyard worker from Barrow-in-Furness, a dinky port town in northern England, who, one innocent day, flipped fuzzy TV channels to witness Tom Watson tap in on No. 18 to win the 1975 Open Championship.
On a whim, despite never picking up a golf club, he decides he wants to play in “the British.”
Repeat after me: “Practice is the road to perfection.” And that’s what Flitcroft does, “borrowing” golf clubs and attire from his boss, then pounding golf balls like no other. Naively yet lovingly and auspiciously weaving his way into the 1976 British Open qualifier, our hero – unwaveringly encouraged by his family – shoots a whopping 121 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dubbed the “world’s worst golfer,” Flitcroft became an international folk hero, toppling a level of headline attention that eclipsed eventual 1976 Open Championship winner, the blonde-locks Johnny Miller.
Flitcroft beat the stuffy Royal & Ancient at its own game, not to be outdone. Entering ensuing Open Championship qualifiers under Arnold Palmtree, Count Manfred von Hoffmenstal and James Beau Jolley aliases and master disguises provide laugh-out-loud moments.
The legend of Flitcroft turns to America and, of all places, Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s there he is enshrined at Blythefield Country Club where, after a simple yet passionate speech by our leading man, the annual “Maurice Flitcroft Golf Tournament” was born. I felt the thoughtfulness – not ridicule – of honoring a man’s anti-achievement that’s, well, an actual achievement.
The versatile, classically trained and Oscars-winning Mark Rylance nails every quirk comprising the Charlie Chaplin-esque Flitcroft. Golden Globes champ Sally Hawkins also gives the performance of a lifetime as Jean, his heart-of-gold wife who’s as dedicated to of their three sons as her husband’s (sort of) fantasist persona. The everyday family – rife with supportive values yet independence and aplomb – includes disco-fanatical twin sons and another son engulfed in maintaining a corporate image diametrically opposite from his low-paid, crane operating dad turned household name for all the wrong (or right) reasons.
Without getting exaggeratedly sappy, birdies abound for Phantom’s charm, golf and sports appeal, and dreamer messaging. Authenticity reigns supreme. Blend a heap of ’70s disco music that’s indefinitely popular and sing-along worthy, and dancing in theater aisles crossed my mind.
Then there’s the locker room scene with Seve Ballesteros, who would finish third in the 1976 Open Championship. The innocent dialogue between the dashing Spaniard and our blue-collar Walter Mitty is what cult-favorite movies are made of. Seve went on to tie for second with Jack Nicklaus.
This sports comedy is void of Happy Gilmore’s grossly fictitious lunacy and Caddyshack’s plot-weak, pseudo slapstick. Phantom is absolute non-fiction and you’ll remember it for a long time. An ordinary, ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs is precisely what we need to combat today’s societal craziness.