The likelihood of you being pleased after watching “The Phantom of the Open” will be completely contingent on two factors: how much you appreciate fact-based “everyman” stories and how much you know about golf.
As the son of a professional golfer who was weaned on the game, I would consider myself more knowledgeable than the Average Joe on the intricacies of the sport but less so than most historians.
Fitting snuggly into the “sports uplift” sub-category, “The Phantom of the Open” (TPOTO) also lands squarely in “quirky British dramedy” territory which was so au currant and en vogue at the turn of this century.
The demand for these kinds of films has never been high but it is constant, and the melding of these two breezy, feel-good genres in tandem with a likeable leading man and a relatively low budget virtually guarantees to turn at least a modest profit.
Bitten by the Bug
Working as a crane operator at a shipyard in the English port town of Barrow-in-Furness, Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) is married to the supportive, yet slightly dim Jean (Sally Hawkins) and is the father of three sons.
At the age of 45, Maurice stumbles upon the TV broadcast of the 1974 Piccadilly World Match Play Championship and is immediately bitten by the golf bug.
Maurice devotes every free moment of the next year to trying to learn how to play the game via printed instructional materials which leads to little, if any, improvement in his ability to grasp even the most rudimentary elements of a correct golf swing.
Although there are rare exceptions, the overwhelming number of people (amateur and professional) who play golf started doing so in their pre-teen years.
While it isn’t a physically demanding activity and might look easy to some, becoming good at golf requires impeccable timing, mastering a complex set of mechanics, and years of practice.
Toss in his (relatively) advanced age and a lack of professional instruction, the odds of Maurice becoming even a passably decent player are miniscule.
Talent Versus Enthusiasm
What Maurice lacks in talent (and self-realization), he more than made up for with passion and unbridled (some may unchecked) enthusiasm, which is somewhat admirable. The power of positive thinking can propel those with meager talent to higher levels, if only nominally, and for the first 30 minutes of this film, it becomes infectious.
But, as Clint Eastwood said in “Dirty Harry,” “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The Eastwood quote can also be applied to director Craig Roberts (“Just Jim,” “Eternal Beauty”) and screenwriter Simon Farnaby (the “Paddington” franchise) adapting his own novel.
Part drama, part comedy, and not enough of either, “TPOTO” is a tonal mess and, in an instant, it goes from presenting Maurice as a loveable sad sack to a blatant liar, and the agreeable recipient of the kind of embarrassing media attention most of us would go out of our way to avoid. In the process, Maurice turns the oldest and most prestigious golf tournament in history, if only temporarily, into an international joke.
Fudging the Paperwork
Rather than take baby steps in lower-end competitions and maybe improving his game, Maurice requests and receives an application to qualify for the 1976 (British) Open Tournament. Not knowing (or caring) what a golf “handicap” is, Maurice tells Jean to identify him on the form as a professional, thus not needing a handicap number.
Granted, this was a long time before the Internet, yet the top brass at the R&A (Royal & Ancient, the governing body of golf everywhere in the world except the United States and Mexico) approved his application despite an inquiry from a secretary questioning the application’s validity.
In addition to being the only professional sport where players keep their own score and must call penalties on themselves for accidentally breaking the rules, golfers have an unspoken code where dignity, honor, and honesty trump everything. Falsifying an entry form is tantamount to turning in an incorrect score card which would result in instant disqualification.
What did happen to Maurice was a lifetime ban imposed on him by Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans), an R&A official, painted by the filmmakers as an inept cartoonish cross between Snidely Whiplash and Wile E. Coyote.
The final act only adds insult to injury and, if made up out of whole cloth, it would be impossible to believe, yet all of it actually happened, which only makes it all the worse for golf purists.
The rub here is, if you are unaware of the rules and finer points of golf (or don’t care), “TPOTO” works slightly as an innocuous, ephemeral, lighthearted trifle.
A running sub-plot involving Maurice and Jean’s twin sons and their pursuit of Disco dancing championships is a minor hoot; the constant needle-drops of bouncy era-specific pop and soul radio hits keeps the pace steady.
Maybe Try These Instead
As real-life 21st century non-fictional sports movies go, “TPOTO” ranks far below the middle of the pack and, when compared to other far superior efforts, it pales even more.
If you want superior uplifting inspiration, skip “TPOTO” altogether and instead stream “Miracle” (hockey), “Eddie the Eagle” (skiing), “Seabiscuit” (horse racing), “The Rookie” (baseball), or “Remember the Titans” (football).
If you a prefer a gripping, true story about golf, check out late director Bill Paxton’s “The Greatest Game Ever Played” from 2005. In it, Shia LaBeouf stars as Francis Ouimet, a 20-year amateur who was part of an 18-hole playoff which also included top-rated British professionals Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) and Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus) in the 1913 U.S. Open Championship.
‘The Phantom of the Open’
Director: Craig Roberts
Stars: Mark Ryland, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans, Jake Davies
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: June 3, 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5