16 Apr 2022 | Industry news |

Clayton: Jack Newton's legacy

by Mike Clayton

Jack Newton player image
Jack Newton was a great player, but his contribution later was even more significant.

Fate can be unspeakably cruel, and few golfers suffered more from a single twist of it than Jack Newton.

Growing up in Sydney in the late 1960s he was the Golden Child of Australian amateur golf. He was the one with the swing, the talent, the power and the looks to follow the generation of Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Bruce Devlin and Bruce Crampton.

Bob Shearer, not the favourite to win the match, beat him in the semi-final of the 1969 Australian Amateur at Royal Adelaide and soon after he committed to playing golf for money.

As most did in those days he took himself to Britain, then the thriving heart of the European Tour, and breathed a little life into a tour dominated by home players, most of whom went quietly about their business. Jack and his mates, Shearer, Ian Stanley and Stewart Ginn were a revelation to the British unused to pros playing first-class golf by day and then closing the clubhouse bar long after the day’s final putts had gone down.

By 1975 Newton was one of the best players in Europe and he arrived at Carnoustie for The Open with some reason for optimism. He tuned up by playing a practice round with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf and 65 on Friday’s 3rd round had him one behind South African Bobby Cole, one ahead of Johnny Miller, two ahead of Tom Watson with Nicklaus a another shot back.

The American superstars, Nicklaus and Miller had to fancy their chances. Watson, playing his first Open had just choked away the US Open the previous month and neither Cole nor our man had much experience of the final day pressure of a major championship.

The wind changed direction on for Saturday’s fourth round and Carnoustie, likely the toughest of all the Open courses, played at its most difficult. Miller took two to get out of the fairway bunker at the 18th made a bogey and tied with Nicklaus at 280. Watson, playing with Miller, came to the 18th one behind his partner, hit a nine iron to twenty-five feet and made the long putt for 279.

The wind switch made the into the breeze 17th a brutal hole and Jack, needing two fours for 278, hit the wrong club off the tee, barely carried the burn running across the fairway and made an almost inevitable five.

Cole took 76 to tie Nicklaus and Miller, leaving Newton and Watson to play for the Claret Jug over eighteen holes on the Sunday.

The wind switched back, the last was a drive and a two iron and after seventeen holes they were tied. Watson hit the green, Jack the greenside bunker and four to a five it was after the Australian missed from twelve feet coming back down the hill.

Eight years later The Open was at Royal Birkdale. Watson won the last of his five Opens and Newton was in Australia commentating for Channel 9.

In the years after Carnoustie, Jack won the 1979 Australian Open after Greg Norman three-putted Metropolitan’s final green and five months later he was second behind Severiano Ballesteros at Augusta.

Seve liked and respected “Yak” as he called him. They had played together in Europe when Seve was starting out and at the post tournament press conference the Australian made it clear he was tired of the lack of respect some Americans had for the Spaniard’s game.

“I’ve read some of the newspaper articles this week and, you know it’s almost as though you guys are waiting for Seve to blow up. I’ve also heard some pretty snide, completely uncalled for remarks from some of the players that he’s lucky and a 'one-putt Jessie' and all that crap.

'America's considered to be the tops in professional golf and here comes a young 23-year-old and he’s taken some of the highlight away from your superstars. But, you know the guy’s a great player and the sooner Americans realise it, the better'.”

A year later Newton lost his tour card in the United States and whilst still a young man his game was some way from its best and he wasn’t exempt at Birkdale. With a nice television offer on the table, flying all the way to England to qualify with hundreds of others for a few meagre spots in the Open field likely seemed a bad idea.

Of course, had Watson not made that long putt across the 72nd green, Newton would have been the champion, an exempt player and teeing up at Birkdale and playing a few weeks in Europe on the way home.

Instead the very next week he walked into the spinning aeroplane propellor and life as he knew it irrevocably changed.

There was only one way Jack was going to manage his tragedy. He learned to write beautifully with his left hand, he got his handicap down to 12, was the Chairman of the Board of the Australian Tour for years and his Jack Newton Junior Golf Foundation introduced thousands of kids to the game.

He was a brilliant television commentator who could have worked in America but with his family in Australia he eschewed the opportunity. As bland as the world of television golf commentary is these days, he’d have been a revelation because he was never afraid to say what was exactly on his mind.

Ironically the year after the accident he was working for the BBC at St Andrews.

Vincente Fernandez, John Bland and Freddie Couples came to the final hole on Friday (by now the second day) and one after the other they played far to the left of the usual line off the 18th tee. Alex Hay, the long-time British commentator was on with Newton and with each successive drive he expressed some surprise at how far left they were driving.

Jack suggested the position of the pin and the angle of the wind had a lot to do with it, but Hay wasn’t having it.

In his post post round television interview Couples was informed there was some dispute in the commentary box about the strategy on the final hole.

“Well, we all thought the direction of the wind and the position of the pin advantaged a drive further left than normal”

“Well, Alex’ said Jack, “I guess that’s why you were a club pro and I played the tour."

He never worked for the BBC again but that was Jack. He called it as he saw it and he didn’t suffer fools.

Hiding away in the corner and doing nothing was never an option for him and in the four decades after his accident Newton made an extraordinary contribution to the game in Australia.

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