THE distinctive scent of freshly cut grass and horse manure greets me as I pull up at the Newton family’s sprawling seven-acre Cardiff Heights property. It is an idyllic setting featuring a natural spring, quaint stone bridge, decades-old timber stable, statue-still chestnut horses, white fence posts, a flock of brown flecked ducks, squawking cockatoos, a large swimming pool, tennis court and white weatherboard home.
When the family moved here from Warners Bay in 1984, Newton named the property Augusta in honour of the famed American golf course in Georgia that is home to the annual Masters tournament. Newton was first invited to the prestigious competition in 1976 and was runner-up in 1980, tying for second behind Seve Ballesteros and joining the group of five Aussie runners-up that also includes Jim Ferrier and Bruce Crampton.
Queenslander Adam Scott ended decades of near-misses and heartbreak in April this year when he defeated 2009 champion Angel Cabrera with a birdie at the second hole of a sudden-death play-off. The 32-year-old’s victory was stunning and Newton, who challenged Scott two years ago at a Melbourne press conference about his lacklustre putting form, reckons it came down to two factors.
‘‘He accepted it [putting] was an issue and changed to the long putter and he’s now got the best caddie in the game. [Steve] Williams is the sort of guy who expects majors wins – he’s caddied for Norman and Woods. They were two significant changes and his career’s turned around. He’s starting to believe he can win majors and so he should.
‘‘But I don’t think I’m on his Christmas card list,’’ the straight-shooting 63-year-old adds with a devilish chuckle.
We are sitting at the dining table; Newton at the head with his back to the glass doors that open out to the alluring swimming pool, and wife Jackie closest to the kitchen. The unpretentious home has been extended over the years to accommodate the couple’s children, former golf pro Kristie and Penrith Panthers second-rower Clint, who grew up swimming and riding with friends on weekends when they weren’t playing sport.
While the children now live separate lives – Kristie in Melbourne and Clint in Sydney – Augusta remains the sentimental centre of Newton family life. The interior is the antithesis of contemporary minimalism with shelves lined with knick-knacks collected during extensive travels and white walls adorned with artwork. The treasured clutter charts the family’s colourful history, but the one event that dramatically altered all of their lives is represented in the most profound way – the empty right sleeve of Newton’s navy and white polo shirt.
July24 marked the 30th anniversary of Newton’s horrific accident at Sydney Airport, which shocked the nation and made international headlines. The facts are well-known: Newton had travelled south with four friends – including the experienced pilot – in a small plane to watch the Sydney Swans play; as the plane readied for departure that Sunday night Newton, who had not made it on board, was struck by the Cessna’s propeller.
Friend Frank D’Arcy, who was credited with helping to save Newton’s life as he lay injured and bleeding profusely on the tarmac, told the Herald: ‘‘We didn’t think he was coming, then he appeared outside on the left side of the aeroplane. He couldn’t get aboard and must have been trying to get around to the door on the other side ... But an aeroplane is not like a motor car, you can’t just walk around to the other side. And there are no rear vision mirrors on a plane. It was very dark there. Pitch black’’.
The propeller sheared off his right arm, sliced open his abdomen and struck the right side of his face, destroying his eye. Renowned ophthalmologist Fred Hollows was one of three highly respected medicos who repaired Newton’s brutal injuries. ‘‘It was really lucky that the Prince of Wales had its A team on that night,’’ quips Newton.
While he can’t remember anything about that night, witnesses have told him that he tried to get up off the tarmac. D’Arcy held him down.
‘‘I could have walked around the corner and got an Aeropelican flight,’’ reflects Newton, but it is the only time he even hints at regret.
He would normally have been at the British Open golf tournament, but a persistent elbow strain – he can no longer remember which arm had been afflicted though he thinks it was the right one – meant that he didn’t make the trip to the UK that week. ‘‘It’s like most accidents,’’ offers Jackie philosophically. ‘‘It was an accumulation of a few factors.’’
When did Newton first learn of his injuries? ‘‘I can remember waking up after the first operation and I sort of went ...’’ – he rubs his right shoulder – ‘‘and said, ‘Where’s my arm gone?’ The nurse said, ‘You’ve lost your arm’. Jesus, you can imagine. I think at that point I passed out again. It was a gradual process of accepting the fact that it was gone.’’
He also had to accept that his career was gone, too.
For younger readers, and even those with hazy memories of that time, to put the sudden and premature end of Newton’s career into a contemporary context, imagine Adam Scott ‘‘being struck down before his US Masters win’’, says sport journalist Will Swanton, co-author of Amen: How Adam Scott won the US Masters and Broke the Curse of Augusta National. ‘‘It’s very cruel that Jack was robbed of the same chance [to win a major]. He was a giant of the game and probably would have done it. Maybe that’s why he loses patience when he thinks young guys are wasting their talent.’’
‘‘You don’t become a giant of the game without the wins,’’ says former professional golfer-turned-commentator Brett Ogle, ‘‘and he was winning. He was contending for majors and was very unlucky not to win a couple, very unlucky. He was a superstar in his prime.’’
He had been runner-up in the 1975 British Open, which the preppy 25-year-old American Tom Watson won by one stroke after an 18-hole play-off with Newton, also 25, and described by an English commentator as ‘‘casually, shamblingly [sic] flamboyant’’.
He won the Australian Open in 1979 and tied for second at the US Masters in 1980. He was 33 at the time of the accident.
‘‘I felt there were all sorts of options for me,’’ he says. ‘‘The common perception was that you were at your best as a golfer between 30 and 40.’’
While the accident crushed Newton’s dreams and almost claimed his life, it is what he did next that defines him.
JACK Newton snr was a Cessnock coalminer like his father. He was also a hard task master and strong golfer who instilled a love of sport in his rambunctious son, known by family members as Jack jnr. (‘‘Don’t ever call your kid the same name as a parent, especially when they both play golf,’’ complains Newton). When Jack snr moved the family to Sydney so he could retrain as a police officer, Newton ‘‘had a go with most sports’’. ‘‘I went to school to play sport, really,’’ he jokes. ‘‘I played rugby, league, soccer, cricket. Dad had been a league player in Cessnock, but he told me to give the game away and concentrate on golf. I enjoyed the rough and tumble, the team thing, but golf is a very good game for young people. It involves discipline, honesty and integrity.
‘‘When I was at Epping High I copped a bit of stick about golf. It was seen as a pussy’s game,’’ he laughs heartily, with the confidence of someone who became a professional player at 21 and won his first international tournament, the Dutch Open, a year later. He may be many things – egotistical, opinionated, brutally honest, competitive and stubborn – but no one would describe him as a pussy.
Newton has always been one of the boys. He enjoys a drink and a good time, and likes to be around people who enjoy a drink and a good time. His colourful language is legendary and he loves telling stories. He tells me about meeting the British actor and writer Robert Shaw, well-known for his role as the dissolute Quint in the film Jaws, in a small bar in Spain.
‘‘Tuesdays were practice round days, pretty boring, so me and this South African guy I used to travel with went and had a drink,’’ Newton recounts. ‘‘A guy came over and said, ‘I heard you talking, you’ve got an Australian accent’. He introduced himself as Robert and we had a few more drinks.
‘‘I said, ‘What do you do?’. He said he was an actor staying at Orson Welles’s villa and writing some short stories. I asked him what sort of acting, and he said stage and film. I asked which movies and he said, ‘Jaws, [The Taking of] Pelham One Two Three. It was Robert Shaw!
‘‘We talked about all those really important issues such as who was the best sort in Hollywood.’’ More belly laughs.
The pair became friends. ‘‘In those days, there were none of those,’’ says Newton, nodding in the direction of the snoozing laptop at the other end of the table, ‘‘so everywhere I went [to compete] he’d send me a telegram and wish me luck.
‘‘The poor bastard died when he was 52.’’
Newton believes the 1970s was the best era to be a professional golfer. Strict fitness regimens, intense media scrutiny and large entourages didn’t begin to make an impact until the ’80s. ‘‘We had more fun. It’s all about the money now. The numbers are now greater, the depth is greater, but the great players of my era, with the equipment they’ve got now, those blokes would murder ‘em. I’m talking about Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Seve.
‘‘In ’72 I had eight top 10 finishes and won two tournaments – all for £19,000. These blokes today wouldn’t get out of bed for that.’’
‘‘I’ve heard some amazing stories [about the ’70s],’’ offers Ogle. ‘‘Back in the days of Bob Shearer and Ian Stanley the winner’s cheque would go on the bar on a Sunday night and they’d drink through to Monday.
‘‘Things started to change in the mid-’80s. Greg Norman really changed it up, hitting the gym, and fitness programs and trainers came in. Everyone was looking for an edge.’’
But it wasn’t all boozy post-tournament celebrations. While sport psychology was in its infancy, Newton admits to hiding in the toilet and reading The Power of Positive Thinking and Maxwell Maltz’s influential Psycho-Cybernetics, which included techniques to develop a positive inner goal as a means of developing a positive outer goal. ‘‘If anyone had seen me reading, they would have thought I was a lunatic.’’
It was all about finding that edge.
NEWTON has always been a tough bugger.
‘‘His parents were doers,’’ says Kristie Newton, ‘‘and they held down all these different jobs to pay for him to be at two different [golf] clubs.
‘‘You can see that the way he was raised affected how he dealt with his injuries.’’
Kristie remembers the night of the accident, though she hasn’t told many people. The 35-year-old recalls waking up during the night and going in to see her mother, only to find family friends in her parents’ bed.
‘‘I freaked out,’’ she recalls. ‘‘They didn’t tell me there’d been an accident, they just said that mum had to go to Sydney to be with dad. I can remember flashes – visiting mum at the hospital quarters where she was staying to be near dad, and waiting around a lot and forever doing crayon drawings. We were too young to have bad memories.’’
Jackie, 65, had been stitching a pair of Newton’s pants in readiness for a tournament in Japan the following week when friends knocked on the front door. ‘‘They told me there’d been an accident. I rang the hospital and they said to get down there. They couldn’t tell me if he’d survive or not.’’
Newton was in intensive care for eight weeks. A large part of his bowel had to be removed and he lost half his liver.
‘‘I took the kids to Coogee one day and told them what happened,’’ Jackie recalls through tears. ‘‘Kristie looked at me and said, ‘Can daddy still cuddle me?’ I said, ‘Daddy can cuddle you with one arm’.’’
Once Newton was eventually discharged from hospital – he had two more operations in the first 12 months – the family moved in with his parents at Carlingford so he could travel to the Mount Wilga Rehabilitation Hospital near Hornsby. It was a challenging period. Newton, who had been so powerful and fearless on the golf course, had to learn to use his left hand to hold a pen, to tie his laces, to ‘‘wipe my bum’’, as well as having to adjust to having one eye. ‘‘If the accident didn’t sharpen me up, that did,’’ he says. ‘‘I was so right handed, it was a joke. A few pens whistled around the room with frustration.’’
He and his packed lunch would get picked up in a mini bus filled with other outpatients.
Newton worked hard with the ‘‘physical terrorists’’ and was determined to reclaim his independence. There was no room for self-pity or defeat.
‘‘I saw young kids aged 14, 15, who had all sorts of things wrong with them. There was a bloke who’d been blown up in the Vietnam War and I remember distinctly he took one step in Mount Wilga and the roof nearly came off because everyone was happy because this bloke had taken one step.
‘‘That put things in perspective for me. I thought, shit, I’m not that badly off really. To play golf you psychologically have to be pretty tough. You’re on your own and it’s such a difficult game. I think that helped me as far as my mental strength went and I’ve always maintained that people who have these sorts of things happen to them, the worst thing is pity because that will drive you to sit in the corner for the rest of your life.
‘‘All I needed was the support of friends and family.’’
EVERYONE adores Jackie Newton. She is the rangy, attractive, former British model who smooths out Newton’s rough edges. Where Newton is pugnacious and stubborn, Jackie is warm and diplomatic. They are chalk and cheese, but very tight-knit. They met in England at a 1972 tournament and have been married 39 years. They relish being grandparents to Kristie’s three-year-old daughter Matilda with husband and former Hawthorn player Ben Dixon, and are looking forward to welcoming the couple’s second child in November. Clint will become a first-time father in October.
‘‘I see them as Bonny and Clyde, as Sonny and Cher,’’ jokes Clint Newton, 32. ‘‘They’re meant to be together. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I was extremely lucky to have two loving and supportive parents. Like every family, we’ve had the odd argument, but we’d always make up.’’
‘‘Everyone tells me how lucky I am,’’ says Newton, ‘‘but as I keep reminding her, I dragged her out of the gutters of London and brought her to treasure island, which she hates to hear,’’ he cackles.
‘‘If you hadn’t run into me, you’d be in the gutters of London,’’ Jackie fires back.
Their desks are side by side in the home office and both work tirelessly for the Jack Newton Junior Golf Foundation, which was established in 1986 and funded largely from the proceeds of the annual Jack Newton Celebrity Classic. Newton has raised more than $3million for junior golf, as well as diabetes research and awareness campaigns (Newton was diagnosed with the disease in the early ‘90s and his father died from diabetes-related complications).
‘‘I don’t care what level kids play at, if you’re in that [sporting] environment, I think your chances of ducking all the problems out there are far greater than if you are not playing something,’’ says Newton.
He is insistent that sportspeople give back to the community. ‘‘He’s given it to me right between the eyes before and I respect that,’’ says Brett Ogle. ‘‘I don’t like it, but he’s probably right. He’s done it when he’s thought I’ve been dodging something I should have doing such as putting more back into golf. He doesn’t see it as just about signing cheques.’’
After three decades, Newton still endures frequent pain. The non-existent fingers attached to his phantom right arm regularly cramp. At other times, his fist will clench and pain ‘‘as bad as the worst tooth ache you can ever imagine’’ will shoot down his arm. Keeping busy provides a welcome distraction from the discomfort, and Newton isn’t one to sit around doing nothing.
‘‘I’ve never heard him complain about the accident; he’s just always been so positive,’’ says longtime friend and former Belmont Golf Club pro Paul Robertson. ‘‘His zest for life is probably what helped him pull through. He likes participating. A lesser person could have turned into a loner and just dropped out, but he’s come through and is someone to admire.’’
As well as his charity work, Newton has also carved out roles as a golf course designer and respected commentator – mainly with Channel 7 – though it seems ‘‘they have pensioned me off’’.
He still lives and breathes the sport, having taught himself to play with his left hand and a right-handed stance. He is due to tee off at Newcastle Golf Club today and is eager to finish the interview on time. He’s ‘‘on a hot streak at the moment’’, though Jackie says he still comes home and says he’s going to give it away. ‘‘I’ve heard that so many times,’’ she laughs.
‘‘He loves the game and he loves to win,’’ says Robertson, 67. ‘‘He’s got a couple of handicaps – the handicap he’s on, and the handicap he can play, which are two different things.
‘‘My handicap is about 12 and I reckon he should be on the same one, but sometimes it’s more than me so I’ve got to give him some start. He always seems to win.’’
Ogle, who fronts The Golf Show on Fox Sports, recorded a special with Newton three months ago. They played at Cessnock’s Stonebridge Golf Course, which Newton designed.
‘‘At the third hole he chipped in from about 50 yards out, left handed, up on to the green like the Jack of old. It was just awesome,’’ Ogle laughs.
‘‘I gave his stump a high five it was so good. I thought, you’ve still got it you old bugger. And then he says to me,rubbing it in, ‘Get that up ya Bogle’.’’