May 12, 2008

Jack Newton: Whole Again

25 years after his horrifying accident, the Aussie holds nothing back

Jack Newton's life changed forever on July 24, 1983. Returning with friends from a rugby match in Sydney, Newton, then 33, strayed into the moving propeller of the light aircraft that would have taken him home to Newcastle, an hour to the north. The injuries were catastrophic and career-ending: Newton, runner-up in the 1975 British Open and 1980 Masters and a winner of 13 tournaments on the Australasian, European and PGA tours, lost his right arm and eye and suffered life-threatening damage to his abdomen.

Months later, Newton returned to golf, first as a one-armed player who became good enough to play to a 12-handicap and later as a course designer and television pundit, a role he has forthrightly filled on Australian television for more than 20 years. Never found wanting in the opinion department, Newton discovered the perfect niche for himself in commentary, his sartorial trademark the bow tie.

Through his many hardships, Newton has retained a positive outlook and a strong sense of humor. All of which came across during hours of discussion at last year's Australian Masters and the Australian Open.

Newton played with the game's great players and great characters, and he has plenty of stories to tell about what happened on and off the course. Sticky situations between Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer? The secret to beating Lee Trevino? Practical jokes with decorative prosthetic eyes? Sit back and enjoy the tales of a master storyteller.

Golf Digest: You made a point of playing with a lot of significant players through the years. What do you remember about them?

Jack Newton: I have a theory: If you hang around with rats, you catch fleas. So it was always my intention to go up to blokes like Nicklaus and Trevino and ask them to play practice rounds. A lot of blokes were scared to do that. I wasn't, though. I did the same with Hogan.

Everyone seemed to be terrified of him. I was wondering if he had rattlesnakes hanging off him or something. I found him pleasant to talk to. And we played. I did the same with Jack and Lee because I always felt like I could learn something from them.

I remember the first time I made it to Augusta, in 1976. I played a practice round with Jack. I wasn't full-time in America at that time. I said to him, "Mate, what ball should I be using?"

So he gave me a dozen of his balls.

MacGregors?

That's right.

They were terrible balls, weren't they?

They were -- but his weren't!

The next day I played a practice round with Tom Weiskopf, and he looked at the ball I was using. "Where did you get that?" he asked. I told him Jack gave it to me. He said, "You know, I can't even get those, and I play MacGregor." I told him to ask Jack. But Weiskopf was upset the rest of the day.

Jack was always my idol. The crowd always pulled for Arnie against Jack, but Jack put up with it.

I remember sitting in a clubhouse when Nicklaus and Palmer had a bit of a blue [argument]. I played early with Arnold. We came into the locker room, and a storm started to brew.

Anyway, the storm got worse, and the players were called in. Jack was something like eight over par playing the ninth hole. Arnold said, "You know what's going to happen here, don't you? They're going to cancel the round because Jack is eight over." And just as he said it, Jack walked in behind him and heard him say it.

Jim Thorpe, when I first met him, said to me that we "Frenchmen" had to stick together out there. He and I were on the bench as Jack walked in. I don't know if you've ever noticed, but when Jack gets nervous or angry, he has a little twitch he does with his chin, and he goes bright red. Well, he did both. And as he walked past, he said, "Yeah, Arnold, just like they did for you all those times."

At that, Jim Thorpe turned to me and said, "Newtie, this is no place for we Frenchmen. There's an argument going on between God and Jesus Christ, so we better get out of here!" [Laughs.]

There was always a bit of friction between Nicklaus and Palmer, although they managed to hide it fairly well.

Yeah, there was. Jack went about his business more quietly. He was opinionated, though. One thing Jack never liked was all the shot [chatter] Trevino used to come out with on the course. Lee was a good friend of mine, but I know Nicklaus hated all the chitchat when he was playing. Jack thought all that chat was designed to put you off. And, probably to some degree, it was. He rarely beat Lee head-to-head.

What about Lee? What was he like?

He was a bit of a loner away from the course. Nothing like he was in public. He'd been through some major dramas and had lost a lot of money. On the course he was great fun, though.

If you wanted a laugh, you played with Trevino. But if you were laughing, he was probably going to beat you. Because he controlled the conversation.

I played with him in Memphis one year. I played with him every Tuesday, so I was looking forward to it. I was on the range hitting balls when he appeared. "Newtie, I'm going to have you today, my friend," he said. When we got to the first tee, he was going non-stop at me. But I saw two gorgeous blondes standing by the tee. Lee used to love talking about sex.

I said, "You should have seen the night I had with those two blondes over there."

"Tell me about it," he answered. So I controlled the conversation for the next four hours and beat him. I knew his Achilles' heel. If only everyone else had known: Talk about sex, and he was there for the taking. I knew I couldn't beat him hitting golf balls.

There were other characters. Simon Hobday's a legend on the European tour. Oh, yes. His idea of washing clothes was to empty his suitcase into the bath, then stir it all with his putter. Cashmere, everything. One year in Switzerland he hung it all on the rail on his balcony. But the wind blew it all off. Everything was covered in dust and dirt. But he picked it up and threw it into his suitcase!

Sounds like it was a lot of fun then.

If one of us won, we paid for the party.

I did, more than once. I remember losing my winner's check in a bar once. Roger Maltbie famously did that, too.

He was a good mate of mine. When my daughter was born back in Australia -- I couldn't get back because it just wasn't practical in those days -- Roger celebrated with me. He was smoking a cigar and wasn't paying attention. He burned my hand with the bloody thing. And I was playing with Nicklaus the next day.

I played with my hand bandaged and beat Jack anyway.

For a time you were close to Greg Norman as well, once referring to him as Australia's Palmer. Do you think Greg is unfulfilled?

I do.

He has never admitted that.

No, because he's making a load of money and all the rest of it.

What is the real Greg Norman like? Do we ever get to see him?

I knew the real Greg Norman. He was a good guy. But things changed when the money started rolling in. I had another blue with him about all the minders around him. I said, "What about your mates? Your real mates?" Guys like Stewart Ginn and Brian Jones and myself, blokes who were close to him and could be trusted to tell him how it is. He said, "All right, we'll have a dinner."

He picked his favorite restaurant in Sydney. It was an hour's drive, but we got there, and we had a great dinner. From there we went on to a bar for a few drinks. Then on to a nightclub. There was a woman on the door of the club from Newcastle, and I knew her. So we go upstairs for a drink. Suddenly there are three or four birds hanging around. What's going on here?

It was one of those joints with big pillars. Next thing a bloke jumps out from behind one: click! He wanted a picture of Greg with these birds. It was obviously a setup. The bird downstairs had clearly made a call.

So we go to leave. She goes to kiss him goodbye, and another guy takes a photograph of that. Norman chases him down an alleyway and threatens to smash his camera unless he gets the film.

I thought, You poor bastard. Here we are just minding our own business, trying to have a night out, and this is what it has come to.

That sort of thing got Greg to the stage where he didn't trust anyone. And I have the feeling his life has been miserable in many ways.

Has he lost touch with the guys you mentioned?

I think occasionally they see him at events, but not much now. Which is a shame. I think he needs a few mates in his life. I feel that he's going to end up a lonely man with no friends. All the money in the world isn't going to do him any good.

What about your time on the tour?

I'm not someone who dwells on the past; I never have been. That helped me later in life, given what happened to me. It was a special time. I had a pretty good run, 13 years on tour. Although I still felt like I had plenty of good years in front of me when I had the accident.

We need to talk about your accident. Can you start by talking about where you had been that day and the lead-up to what happened?

The guy who owned the plane was a good friend of mine. He had a great little six-seater plane. That day we decided to go down to Sydney to watch a game. It was at the Cricket Ground.

We flew down, had lunch, watched the game and had a couple of beers -- only a couple of beers, not too many. We called a cab, but we couldn't all get in. So four left and two of us called another cab, but we couldn't get one right away. It was raining, and the cab drivers don't like going to the Cricket Ground. Eventually we got a lift from the wife of a friend. We were getting a bit desperate. The others had been gone about 45 minutes. So she drove us to the airport. Because the plane was small, it was parked next to the fence and the road we drove in on. You could walk through, get into the plane, and away you went.

The other guy with me got out of the car to see what was going on. The lady driving us asked me about doing a corporate golf day. So we talked about that for a couple of minutes. Then my mate came back and told us they were ready to go. I talked to the lady for maybe five more minutes and got out of the car. As it turned out, one of the blokes in the plane was in a hurry. They had waited for us for a while. So, by the time I got out of the car and walked through the gate, the engine was running. And the plane was just starting to move off as I got to the edge of the tarmac.

By that time it was dark, and it was still raining. I tried to attract the pilot's attention, or someone's attention. But he didn't see me and basically ran over me. That was that.

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

I've heard a lot of people say I was [drunk] at the time, but that is crap. The legal stuff went on for ages. But now, significantly, you can't walk in the way I did. There's a barbed-wire fence there. That tells you everything. But it's hard to take on the government in court.

What do you remember about the accident?

I remember thinking, What the hell happened? I was still conscious and tried to get up, but one of the guys was a lifesaver on the surf crew in Newcastle. He knew enough to keep me down. From where we were at the airport to the Prince of Wales Hospital is maybe 10 minutes. So the emergency people got there pretty quickly and took me to the hospital. As I found out later, they had the best group of surgeons on call that day. It's a very highly regarded hospital. That's really what saved my life, I'm sure of that.

When did you know what had actually happened?

I was still conscious in the ambulance, but I wasn't aware of the extent of the injuries.

When did you know?

Not until after all the operations. I think I was in some sort of induced coma. So it wasn't until I woke up. I remember wondering where I was. Then I made as if to feel my arm but found it wasn't there. What's happened here? I thought it was all a bad dream, and I passed out again. I was up to the eyeballs with drugs. So it wasn't until I came 'round again that I realized exactly what had happened.

Who told you?

One of the sisters came in. I came to for a minute and asked her where my arm was. She told me I had lost it. Then I passed out again. Psychologically, that was probably the worst moment.

What was the most life-threatening injury?

The abdominal stuff. I got septicemia [bacterial infection] from my internal injuries. From there, I went backward pretty dramatically. I remember being in intensive care -- that came after I got out of the really intensive-care room -- and seeing a priest walking around the bed.

I remember reading about it at the time and thinking, He's had it.

Yes, I was remarkably lucky. As I understand it, they gave me about a 40-percent chance of survival. The septicemia was what nearly killed me, not the injuries. They thought about trying to reattach my arm, but it was too badly damaged. They had to save my life, and an arm wasn't going to do that.

What about your rehab?

The guy who did all my facial stuff was a famous guy in Australia, professor Fred Hollows. He was a real character. A bit of a renegade but very highly regarded.

He used to walk into the ward smoking a pipe, and the sisters would always ask him to put it out. He would just laugh. "They can't sack me, Jack -- I'm too good."

Long after the accident I had to go in for some minor surgery. It was only under local anesthetic. He says to the sister, "Give me the fork and knife."

"Professor, don't talk like that in front of the patient."

"Listen, sister, this bloke has had more stitches in him than you've had hot dinners. Don't worry about him; he'll be all right."

He was a classic. I loved him.

How hard was it psychologically?

I got a huge lift from all the messages I got. The guys on the tour were fantastic. And Jackie and the kids were unbelievable in helping me to get well and move forward.

The main surgeon, Jim Nield, was a golfer. He told me about a psychologist he knew. Jim thought it was important that I talk to him. I told him I didn't think I needed one, but he insisted.

The other doctors, like professor Hollows, told me that the bottom line wasn't how I dealt with what I didn't have but how well I learned how to use the eye and arm I still had. That made more sense to me.

I had to learn so many things over again. I had to learn how to write, tie my shoelaces, all kinds of things. I went to rehab in a place where they taught me all the tricks.

For example?

Oh, I use only clip-on ties. I did meet a guy who could tie one properly with one hand, but I never could do it.

Tell me about some of the messages.

They were a huge boost. Jack Nicklaus wrote. So did Seve, who I loved. He's a good guy. Greg Norman. Ray Floyd.

Did any surprise you?

They were all bloody good. But I'll tell you who shocked me, not so much then but later on, when I first saw him again: Craig Stadler. We used to drink beer together. He came up and hugged me. He was quite sentimental about it. He's not the hard-nosed character you see on the course, which is my sort of guy, really. But he was very emotional.

On the lighter side, tell me some of the things that you've done with your prosthetic eye.

This guy Jim Morfit had a real warped sense of humor. We got on quite well right away. He made me a Newcastle Knights eye. That's the [rugby] team I follow. The logo is a knight with a helmet. Then he made me another. It's all bloodshot, and, in quite small writing, it says, "Ignore me, I'm [drunk]." Ian Stanley is a great mate of mine. He used to get me all the time with practical jokes. So one night a crowd of us went over to his place for a barbecue. I took the eye with me. When he wasn't looking, I dropped it into his glass of port. He was sipping away. Then he got near the bottom and saw this ugly apparition. He was sitting on a chair and went over backward. Poetic justice.

We heard a guy tried to sell you the propeller off the plane involved in your accident. True?

I was doing a corporate day when I was tapped on the shoulder. The guy told me he had the propeller off the plane that hit me and wondered if I wanted to buy it. I didn't quite know what to say. The last ----ing thing I want to see again is that propeller. But he was dead serious. Eventually, I told him to go away before I dropped him. But that's a true story -- and needless to say, I didn't buy it.

When did you play golf again?

I didn't think I could at first. But I remembered watching a guy called Allen Miller practice with only his left hand when I was on the PGA Tour. So that made me give it a try. I thought about swinging left-handed, but I couldn't do it. I had hit so many balls right-handed. I took a 7-iron and teed up a ball. Which wasn't easy -- I had depth-perception problems, too, having only one eye. But I focused on just making contact. And, as I got stronger, I got better.

How well can you play?

I got down to a 12-handicap. But that was when I was rehabbing and beating balls every day. I started off playing three holes, then six, then up to nine and on to 18. I had aspirations of getting down to single figures, but it never happened. As I started doing other things, I played less. And my handicap went up. I'm off 18 now.

How far can you hit it?

About 220 meters [more than 240 yards], which is farther than most blokes. But I struggle on long courses and on shots where you need a right hand. Bad lies are tough.

How did the accident affect your relationship with your wife?

She was a lot worse off than I was in many ways. To sit and watch is harder than going through something like that. Most of the time I was oblivious to how serious it was. She was amazing. There were practical issues, too. I had to figure out how I was going to make a living, for one thing. And with one arm and one eye. The television deal saved me there. And over the years I've dabbled in course design and a few other things. It was really just a case of fast-tracking some of the things I would have done later in life anyway.

You've been the top television commentator in Australia for two decades now. Did you ever get a chance to go to the United States?

I did. But it meant doing 32 weeks a year. I couldn't do that much, and Ian Baker-Finch ended up getting the job.

What do you try to achieve in your commentating?

Most guys are too technical for the average viewer. I try not to talk down to those people but give them a little lesson along the way. I want it to be fun for them.

To be honest, I think a lot of other commentators are boring. And as an ex-player I'm mindful of not being cynical about today's players. If you've been there and done it, you don't want to hear terms like "choker." I know Johnny Miller likes to use the word. We all get nervous, including the guys who call others chokers. Everyone hits bad shots; it doesn't mean you're a choker, though.

Tell me how you lost your job with the BBC.

I was commentating with Alex Hay at the 1984 Open. John Bland, Baker-Finch and Fred Couples came to the last hole at St. Andrews. The wind was into their faces off the right. The pin was left and over the Valley of Sin. Bland got up and hit his drive way left, onto the first hole. Alex said he'd pulled it, hooked it and come over the top of it. Then Baker-Finch did the same thing, maybe 20 yards farther. Alex said the same. He'd either hooked it or pulled it. So Fred gets up there and smashes it 40 yards past Ian on the same line. So Alex said the same again.

The upshot was that Bland and Ian both made 3. And Fred holed his pitch for a 2. When Couples hit his drive, I had said, on air, that all three players had gone where they did so that they would have the best angle for their second shots. They took the Valley out of play and were hitting back into the wind. Alex disagreed, again on air, which is a bit of a no-no. Anyway, Fred is interviewed. Clive Clark told him there had been some disagreement over the way he had played the last hole. So Fred says he was trying to hit a low hook up the left so that he would have the best angle and be hitting into the wind.

When we came back to the commentary box, I was expecting Alex to say something about it. But he ignored me. So I thought, Mate, you're not getting away with this. So I said, "Well, Alex, I guess that's why I played on the tour, and you were a teaching pro."

I never worked for the BBC again.

As a commentator, you've been critical of many American players' reluctance to travel outside the U.S.

There is so much money in America, the rest of the world isn't getting to see the best players. Not enough, anyway. I get the feeling the Americans think golf is an American game. It isn't. I think they have a responsibility to promote the game worldwide.

If you took Tiger out of it, the money there wouldn't be nearly as big. And the playing strength suddenly doesn't look nearly as good. They really haven't got many great players at the moment. When Tiger gets bored and goes off to be President of the U.S., they're in trouble.

Maybe I see things too much through Australian eyes, but to get to the top in anything we have always had to travel. We're stuck out here in the Pacific Ocean and have no choice. But now we've reached the stage where the Americans don't think they have to travel anymore.

I remember asking Tom Kite if he was going to the [British] Open. He said he wasn't; it was too expensive. It was at Muirfield. If he went, he would have stayed at Greywalls [a luxury hotel next to the course] and taken the Concorde over. So no bloody wonder it was expensive! And he still has the first cent he ever made!

The Europeans, the South Africans and the Australians have caught up. And the Asians are coming. I looked at the PGA Tour money list recently, and 15 of the top 20 were non-Americans. Take out Tiger and maybe Mickelson -- who I can't stand -- and you're left with Furyk and those sorts of blokes who are hardly superstars.

Why can't you stand Mickelson?

It's just a personal thing. The guy always seems a bit false to me. I probably don't know him well enough to really pass judgment. He's not the only one, of course. It takes all types. And in all jobs you come across some people you like and some you don't like.

Who is the best of the younger Australians? Adam Scott?

Right now he probably is. The best junior I've seen -- and I've been involved at that level since 1979 -- is Jason Day. I don't think there's a better young player technically. But there's more to it than hitting a golf ball.

How do you define greatness in a player? Is someone like Trevino, who had so many shots, a greater player than Nicklaus in some ways?

I compare Nicklaus with Tiger. He was very long in his early days. He could hit it in the rough and get it out; his downswing was so steep. And Jack wasn't the straightest off the tee. They talk about Seve being wild, but Jack had his moments, too.

What was the best shot you ever saw Seve hit?

The shot at Royal Melbourne was the best, I think. He was in a deep bunker, and he had bushes in his way. He must have been 50 meters from the green. So he got on his knees and knocked it to about eight feet. It was unbelievable. Off his knees! I was standing on the next tee watching it all. I knew him well and just shook my head and called him a freak. Actually, I'm sure I used a different word. It's a shame to see Seve the way he is now. Talk about Greg, but what about him?

What about today's players?

To be honest, I'm sick of watching them all hit 2-irons off the tee -- they're like sheep, most pros.

Actually, that's one thing I learned playing with Weiskopf and Nicklaus at Carnoustie in '75. We got to the ninth hole, a long par 4. Tom hit a 4-iron off the tee. I was amazed.

"What are you hitting a 4-iron for?"

I said. "The hole is 420 yards long!"

Tom just smiled. "Jack is hitting a 4-iron, so I am, too."

I didn't hit a 4-iron, but I certainly revised my tactics on that hole. Let's talk about that week at Carnoustie, where you lost the playoff to Tom Watson.

Weiskopf was a good pal of mine back then, and he challenged John O'Leary and me to a game on the Tuesday. He said he'd bring a partner. So John and I are on the first tee the next day. Tom appeared at noon. But he didn't have a partner. Then all I see is thousands of people running toward us. On walks Nicklaus. They took us to the cleaners. Tom shot 65 and Jack was 66. I had 67.

But I watched them carefully. I noticed something they both did with their putting. Both had their hands higher than I was used to seeing. So I worked on that for hours on the Tuesday evening.

Later, I played with Nicklaus in the third round and shot 65. I was rolling the nugget pretty well. After signing my card, he said to me -- I will remember this until the day I die -- "I felt like I was taking 80 out there today." For a guy of his stature to show that sort of humility showed me what a great bloke he is. What moments from that week stay with you today?

When I walked onto the 16th tee [a par 3 that was 235 yards] of the final round, there were like four groups standing there. It was like a who's who of world golf. Johnny Miller was there. So was Nicklaus. They were all there. Standing around waiting that long didn't help me. And it's a hard hole anyway. [Newton bogeyed 16 and 17.] As all that was going on, Watson holed a big putt at the last for a birdie. So I needed 4 to tie.

In the [18-hole] playoff, at the short eighth hole, Watson hooked his tee shot, and it was headed over the fence out-of-bounds. But it hit a wire and dropped down. He still didn't have much of a shot, but he got it on the green and holed from 25 feet for a 3. I remember that!

It's what winners do, isn't it?

Yeah. I've always been a bit of a fatalist, so I guess he was meant to win. When it's your turn, it's your turn. I was probably a little bit raw. I was only 25 and hadn't had a lot of experience at that end of a major.

What do you miss after being away from the game for 25 years?

The competition and the camaraderie. I don't think the camaraderie is the same these days.

How much public and motivational speaking do you do?

I do a lot of public speaking. There's big money in motivational speaking. I'm not keen on it, though. I just find it strange to stand in front of 200 car salesmen or whatever, punching the air and telling them to get motivated to sell more cars.

I've never regarded myself as inspirational in that manner. But there are some who do. I've certainly heard it often enough, about how people have been inspired by what I've done.

The people who have been dealt some bad cards need encouragement more than sympathy. I don't like the sympathy angle. That's what I usually say. All I do is suggest they get help from their friends and family. People are nearly always wonderful when you stick your hand up and ask for help.

When I was just out of the hospital, one of my friends said to me how wonderful people can be when you're in trouble. And he was right. So when I needed help, I asked for it. There's no point in being ashamed to ask.

After your accident, there was a girl in a bed next to yours in the hospital.

I didn't know her, but she was a lovely girl. I remember her being wheeled in. She had overdosed on something. I can't understand that. There I was doing all I could to live, and this bird is trying to kill herself. It turned out she had had an argument with her boyfriend.

The poor bastard in the bed on the other side of me had been hit by a garbage truck. There wasn't a mark on him. But he was in a coma. Amazingly, I ran into his brother in Brisbane a couple of years ago. The guy had just died. He lay in that coma for more than 20 years. Never regained consciousness.

Some things are hard to understand. But I do know that I can't comprehend ever feeling so bad that I'd be trying to knock myself off.

Did you think that attitude helped you after the accident? Do you think the human spirit can overcome the physical?

That's a bit technical for me. [Laughs.] I'm just a simple bloke. Those sorts of powers are beyond me. Either you want to live or you don't. And I wanted to -- very badly.

This is the 124th Golf Digest Interview in a series that dates to 1991. For highlights of previous interviews, click here.