Date: October 02, 2013
Author: Peter Stone /

30 years: Jack Newton on the life-changing accident

Last Thursday the crew of Australia II got together for a 30th anniversary party of its famous victory in the America s Cup. Bob Hawke, Australia s Prime Minister back in 1983, was present wearing that same patriotic jacket emblazoned with AUSTRALIA and the Australian flag. Back in 1983, it was a sporting moment that stopped a nation early that morning as TV and radio reported that the Cup, or Auld Mug, would finally be unbolted from the New York Yacht Club after 126 years. Not so long ago, ABC television aired a TV movie simply titled “Cliffy”, the story of the 61-year-old Colac potato farmer who won his way into the hearts of all Australians, and many beyond our shores, with his victory in the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne ultra marathon. It was another memorable sporting moment in this country 30 years ago, but there was no anniversary party for him just the tele movie for he passed away in 2003 aged 81. There was another moment in 1983 involving a sportsman that also stopped a nation in its tracks, not in joyful celebration but rather stunned silence when news came through that Jack Newton had been involved in a horrific accident involving a light aircraft at Sydney Airport. So shocking were the injuries from the propeller slicing at a 45-degree angle through the entire right side of Newton s body, from the hip to the shoulder and eye, that there were grave fears for his life. He d lost his right arm and his right eye; there were critical internal injuries. He won many battles on the world golfing stage, but 30 years ago he engaged in the greatest fight of all for life itself. And, he won. We spoke on Monday of that day and his life 30 years on. We d been through that day many times quite a few years ago as he then asked me to write his book – Out of the Rough, The Jack Newton Story, published in 2001. I actually wanted to call the book Through My Eye Only, but he fixed me with his left eye and said: Stoney, you re a sick man. I cried as I wrote the story of the accident in third person, with direct quotes in italics from Newton and his wife Jackie, and the tears well again any time I re-read that chapter. It is powerful and portrays the immense strength of mind and resilience of two people I regard as great friends. In the book, Jackie tells of the moment she first saw her husband in intensive care at the Prince of Wales hospital in Randwick. It’s hard to see the man you love in such horrific condition. I could hardly see Jack for all the bandages and tubes. I looked in hope to see where his arm had been; it was gone. A sense of helplessness and despair went through me. How could this be? The fight for life was on. That was the dearest thing. Whether it had been saved, only time could answer. When Newt and I spoke on Monday, I asked: The America s Cup blokes and Hawkey had a 30th anniversary celebration party, did you have a 30th anniversary party to celebrate life? No, I didn t, he replied with a chuckle, without adding I was still a sick man. In fact, head totally forgotten the exact date July 24 until someone telephoned and reminded him. What he did say a few days later to Jackie was: I ve nearly had one arm as long as I had two arms. So, just how does he feel right now with his 64th birthday coming up on January 30 – obviously lucky to be alive? That s pretty much it the way things started out. Obviously as things improved I started to see there was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel in other directions. Obviously it was impossible to play golf any more (at the highest level) but I realised there were other things I could do, Newton said. Just months over after the accident he found one arm so to speak of his new working career. The ABC s production sports producer Bill Pritchard called and asked for him to join Peter Thomson and the late Brian Crafter in the commentary box for the telecast of the 1983 NSW Open at Concord Golf Club. He was between operations at the time but it was the chance to return to the sporting arena he so passionately loved. At school he was castigated by the sports master for wanting to play golf on sports days, rather than rugby – a game head never played. He d played state schoolboys rugby league, but never rugby. Pritchard, after just one day, told Newton he was a natural in the commentary box. Richie Benaud thought so too. Richie called me and it was quite amazing that head actually taken the trouble to recount, in golfing parlance, the advice and things E.W. Swanton (the great English cricket writer and commentator) and written down for him on commentating, Newton said. I just tried to make commentary a bit more interesting for people who didn t play golf because I didn t realise how many people who watched golf didn t play the game. As an aside to that first week in the commentary box, he was on air on the Sunday with Graham Marsh as a guest commentator after head finished his round when Newton s great mate Bob Shearer carved his ball into the crowd on the right. The ball hit the ground and bounced into a woman s head. Oh my goodness, I hope that woman is alright. Isn t that Kathie Shearer with her? Marsh said. Yes, Marshie, and that s my missus on the ground. It might have knocked some sense into her. The ABC switchboard was jammed with calls about how heartless Newton seemed making that seemingly insensitive remark about the marvellous woman who sat for hours beside him day after day just sitting alone with her thoughts as her husband battled for his life. To this day, the Newtons still laugh about what head said. Theirs has been a lasting and loving union since the day he first asked her out when, at the time, she was dating Ion Tiriac, the volatile Romanian tennis player who was better known as Ilie s Nastase s doubles partner. Are you a better person now because of the accident? I asked him on Monday. I don t know whether I can judge that. Certainly I think I do a lot of talking to people in wheelchairs now and I do write letters to people who ve had a bad accident. God knows how many I ve written to over the years, Newton replied. I just believe from my own experience that the most important thing for someone who s had a bad deal is to well, you don t need sympathy, that s the last thing you need. I think you need encouragement and I think you need a bit of guts, and you need the presence of your loved ones and your mates. A dose of all those things is far better than people sympathizing. A the end of the day, it s your call whether you want to go into the world and keep going for the rest of your life, or just go sit in a corner and feel sorry for yourself, Newton said. Newton had left the US Tour, not permanently, but for a while when the accident happened. He d been struggling with an elbow injury, but kept playing for the purses were not of the multi-million dollar variety they are now We were basically playing for two and sixpence, he says. Now, he’s a bit hazy exactly which elbow it was. He thinks it was the right one. Well was is the operative word. He d just been playing decently in three tournaments in Japan and was heading off to Europe the following week after the accident to resume his career there. Jackie was actually sewing up a split seam in his trousers when the call came through. It was just after 8pm and two friends came to the door. Jack had been involved in an accident. She rang the hospital and the duty doctor said: Come as quickly as possible. She began the long drive from just outside Newcastle not knowing what to expect when she got there. Newton still believes that, at the age of 33, his career as a player was far from over I am a firm believer your best years in golf are between the age of 30 and 40. At that stage you ve probably got a better handle on things, you re a bit more hardheaded, he says. Call it maturity. Well, you might say that. Yes, the 1970s and 1980s were fun times on the golf tour and tennis tour for that matter as well. The Australians loved a beer and if one of them won they d put the party on them on the Sunday night. Put a slice of the cheque on the bar. They were larrikin days. In these current times of mobile phones with cameras and the social media and far more politically correct behavior – they would have been on the front page of papers or certainly on the back. To my knowledge, we never broke any laws, Newton said. His TV commentary days are now over. Perhaps. After working for all four networks when they all covered golf in the 1980s, he signed with Channel Seven that covered our Open and Masters and worked exclusively for Seven for 23 years before the network dropped out of golf. Last year, when Seven returned as telecaster of the Open he expected a call. He didn t receive one, but rung them. No, there was nothing for him. He’s not bitter, just extremely disappointed I think I was overlooked because of my age but with my (Jack Newton Junior) golf foundation I think I know all the younger players coming into the game far better than others do. I still think I have something to offer. And that s a view I share. Newton and Thomson are the two best TV commentators Australia has ever had. But, Newton still has other things to occupy his working mind. There is his junior program plus his annual Celebrity Classic that, through the years, has raised millions of dollars. He runs an annual day to raise funds for diabetes treatment and research plus there s his golf design business. And, he is soon to become a grandfather for a second time. His daughter Kristie and her husband, former Hawthorn AFL footballer Ben Dixon, have a three-year-old daughter Matilda while his son Clint, a former Newcastle Knights player, a premiership player with Melbourne Storm and now playing for Penrith, with his partner Carly, a Manchester (UK) girl are expecting their first child in around a week s time. It is family that has also bonded the Newtons. His grandfather and father both worked in the Newcastle coalmines before the latter joined the NSW police force and they were hardheaded blokes. Newton himself is too but, dare I say it, he has a soft side too. And, he is now joining the Internet age with the creation of his own website, designed by Kristie and a friend from university, that is Funny isn t it. Aaron Baddeley had his own website at the age of 18 and, now, at the age of 63, I m getting my own website, he says.