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Ben Wright: Aussie Cool

Appeared in the July/August 2007 LINKS

When the professional golf tours were still to many just a game rather than big business—this was less than 30 years ago—two Aussie mates of mine, Jack Newton and Bob Shearer, were about as wild as they come. Their idea of preparing for the final round of a tournament was to down a skinful of beer to ensure themselves of a good night’s sleep.

So when Newton, who shot a course-record 65 in the third round of the 1975 British Open at Carnoustie, got into an 18-hole playoff against Tom Watson, edging out favorites Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by a shot, it was not surprising that the player known as “Newt the Beaut” or “Jolly Jack” adjourned to the clubhouse bar. Since he had bogeyed three of the last four holes, allowing Watson to catch him, there was some serious sorrow-drowning to perform!

To my astonishment the then 27-year-old Shearer (or “Shears,” as we knew him), who had finished down the field, enlisted my help to try to keep Newton, then 25, from wiping himself out. Alas, that was like the blind leading the blind, and we were all three largely in that condition when we at least delivered Newt to his room and his patient wife, Jackie.

In the next afternoon’s playoff, the breeze off the North Sea was little more than a mere zephyr. A sharp shower lasted three holes on the inward half, but the rough was largely as benign as the weather.

Newton went ahead for the first and only time in the round when he birdied the 12th hole. But he immediately lost it by missing the green at the par-3 13th. Newton chipped up stone dead for his birdie at the 14th. But Watson followed by chipping into the hole for his eagle. Newton “won” the long par-3 16th when Watson’s hooked tee shot cost him bogey. Two excellent pars at the tricky 17th followed, but on 18 Newton hooked his 3-iron second shot into the left front greenside bunker. Watson two-putted from 30 feet for his par four—and victory: 71 to Newton’s 72.

Mark McCormack, in his 1976 annual The World of Professional Golf, wrote: “Newton, too, would have made a good champion. He’s an Adonis of a man, if somewhat paunchy for one in his mid-20s.” Talk about being damned by faint praise!

In The Complete Book of Australian Golf, Terry Smith wrote of Newton: “British golf writers often took a delight in recording that Newton was tossing back beers like a rugby forward.” Actually he played fullback and was a first-class cricketer. Of Newt’s buddy Shearer he wrote: “For a while Bob burned the candle at both ends.” Shearer himself admits in the same paragraph: “The worse you play, the more you drink. But it hardens you.”

Best friends married best friends: Jack and Jackie,  and Bob and Kathie. Not quite Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but close. They met the English fashion models at a tournament sponsored by Piccadilly cigarettes, where the women, dressed in smart navy two-piece suits, were handing out the company product. And the foursome hit the American scene in 1976.

Both only won once on the PGA Tour: Newton the 1978 Buick Open (he also finished second to Seve Ballesteros at the 1980 Masters), Shearer in Tallahassee in 1982. Worldwide, they combined for 23 victories. In addition, Shearer won four events on the European Seniors Tour between 1998 and 2001, but Newton’s playing career was cut tragically short on July 24, 1983.

During a trip from Newcastle to Sydney with friends for a soccer match, Newton left the party’s twin-prop aircraft for a last-second pit stop. On his return, not realizing the pilot had started the engines, he ran into a propeller. Newton lost his right arm and eye, and suffered such serious abdominal damage he was in critical condition for more than a week.

Only an immensely strong physical specimen could have survived such injuries. Not only did Jack recover, he became the doyen of Australian television’s golf commentators, and a very good one-armed golfer. The Newtons’ daughter, Kristie, is a professional golfer. Their son, Clint, plays Rugby League for the Newcastle Knights.

My Aussie friends may have been underachievers but they were a hell of a lot of fun. In the end, maybe that’s a better measure of success.   

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