Howard’s way – trail-blazing pro recalls the Phantom of the Open

Howard’s way – trail-blazing pro recalls the Phantom of the Open

22/03/2022

A meeting with and letter of thanks from Tiger Woods plus a couple of rounds with Bob Hope were occasions when Jim Howard hobnobbed with the famous during his long and distinguished career.

And, as the first black person to become a PGA Professional, Howard has his own claim to fame.

Arguably, however, it was his unwitting link with the infamous for which he is equally well known. Or, if he isn’t, the chances are he will be following the release of a movie entitled The Phantom of the Open.

It recounts the story of Maurice Flitcroft, the hapless hacker who, having fooled R&A officials to play in an Open Championship qualifier without proper handicap criteria, racked up the highest score in the tournament’s history.

“The official total was 121 but it was probably a lot more,” recalls Howard, an Honorary PGA Member who retired in 2005 after 35 years as the head pro at Pontypool Golf Club.

And, as a member of the three-ball playing with Flitcroft on that July day during the long hot summer of 1976, Howard, a Liverpudlian, should know.

Consequently, as well as being portrayed in the movie as Flitcroft, played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance (pictured above), hacks his way round Formby Golf Club, Howard was consulted as to what happened.

And despite the passing of almost half as century since the chain-smoking shipyard crane-operator from Barrow-in-Furness caused an acute sense of humour failure among golf’s establishment, Howard’s recollection of this epic of golfing incompetence remains sharp.

His first impression was that Flitcroft was a “ringer for Marty Feldman” the bug-eyed comedic actor and scriptwriter who was popular during the 1970s.

“I thought that, because he was unattached, Maurice Flitcroft was a pro who has been working abroad or was an American,” says Howard.

That notion was destroyed, however, when Howard, Flitcroft and Dave Roberts, the third member of the three-ball, prepared to tee-off.

“Maurice had a set of Harold Bird golf clubs, which were catalogue clubs,” Howard continues. “His mother had bought those for him. And there were 15 of them in his bag.

“His caddy had to take one back to the pro shop, so Maurice had the regulation 14. As for his dress, he was wearing a pair of chinos, a Fred Perry shirt that was ripped at the top and a pork pie hat.

“Dave and I didn’t think too much about this. And when he skied his first tee shot and it came down about 20 yards away, we thought it was nerves.

“He shanked the next one and by the time he’d played four shots and still not reached our drives we sent Dave’s wife back to tell the R&A officials there was something funny going on.

“An R&A official accompanied us for four holes and, although things went from bad to worse, they didn’t pull Flitcroft out and we had to play the whole round with him.

“When we got to the eighth, a par-five, Dave and I hit a driver and five-iron and reached the green because it was so dry. Meanwhile Maurice was in the sand dunes on the left of the fairway and, as we didn’t see him until he got near the green, we didn’t know how many shots he took in the dunes.

“Later, Harry Bannerman, who was in the three-ball behind us with Warren Humphries and John Schlee from America, told us Maurice had taken at least eight shots in the dunes, but we had him down for an eight on the hole!

“By the time we got to the 14th there were about 200 people following us and someone from The PGA came out and told me to say nothing at the press conference afterwards.

“We were all told to say no comment to anything we were asked but the next day Maurice’s round made the headlines in all the papers while the news that David Jagger was the leading qualifier on 69 was a footnote!

"Looking back now it was funny and I dined out on it for several years. But at the time it was so frustrating as we were all over the course.”

Howard, who is now 78, went on to be involved in the formation of the PGA of Wales and in 1991 had the unique distinction of being the captain and chairman of the PGA South West region simultaneously.

Similarly, he and Dave Roberts are the only two professionals in the history of the Open to have their entry fees refunded.

A more tangible memento, however, is the letter, he received from Woods on his retirement.

“I met him during the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl in 1995,” Howard explains. “Clive Brown, the Great Britain and Ireland captain introduced me. I knew Clive – he was a Welshman who played at my club.

“And when I retired there was a testimonial pro-am for me and a dinner at my golf club.

“During it one of the organisers got up and said: ‘There is a special golf pro who would like to have been here tonight but was unable to come. Instead, he has sent a letter.’

“It was from Tiger Woods, thanking me on behalf of black people like himself for making it possible to play golf as a professional

“I had a letter from Bob Hope when I first started – I had played with him a couple of times when I was an assistant, and he was in London. And I had a letter from Tiger Woods when I finished.”

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