Jackie Newton thought nothing of it at first.
“I just put it down to being married to him for too long,” she joked of her legendary golfing husband Jack’s penchant for not listening to her. “Besides, all my friends tell me they all have the same issue with their husbands.”
But last year the couple’s children, ex-pro golfer Kristie and former rugby league star Clint, twigged there may be something more sinister going on between their father’s ears after witnessing bouts of confusion and memory loss, and pushed their dad to go see the family doctor.
“The doc referred Jack straight to a specialist so he could get a brain scan and a few other tests done to check a few things,” Jackie recalls.
A few days later those suspicions were confirmed: Jack did have something more serious – Alzheimer’s disease, early stages, and would require an immediate overhaul to his lifestyle to better manage the progressive disease that destroys memory and other important cognitive functions.
Jack, never one to be told what to do, was now under strict doctor’s orders to increase his exercise routine, follow a healthy diet plan and – perhaps the most difficult adjustment of all – give up booze and cigarettes.
“Given all this was put on him about six months before the Celebrity Classic (Newton’s annual charity golf tournament in the New South Wales Hunter Valley known for its alcohol-fuelled shenanigans and fundraising efforts), I couldn’t be prouder of the way he handled it. Jack hasn’t had a drop of alcohol or a puff on a cigarette in 18 months,” Jackie confirms. “I remember he attended The Jack last year and didn’t touch a drink. We didn’t say anything to anyone, only that for medical reasons he was taking it easy for a while. But he’s doing well. He’s now going to the gym, walking regularly and apart from some short-term memory loss, he’s managing OK with everything.”
It’s no surprise to learn the 1979 Australian Open champion is coping with this latest setback. This is, after all, the same bloke who lost an arm, half of his stomach and the sight in one eye after a near-fatal run-in with a plane propeller in 1983. He’s also lived with diabetes and shaken off a bout of meningococcal meningitis along the way. Yep, if Jack was an old boot he’d be the one with reinforced steel caps and multiple layers of kangaroo leather – “tough” doesn’t begin to describe the bloke from Cessnock who almost took down Tom Watson in a playoff at the 1975 Open at Carnoustie.
But I had to see for myself just how one of our great characters and promoters of junior golf was faring in the midst of a global pandemic. So I got him in front of a computer, on a Zoom call, to chat about the diagnosis, and reflect on the fact it’s been 40 years since he nearly caught his old Spanish mate Seve Ballesteros on the back nine at Augusta National [see page 86 of Australian Golf Digest’s November issue]. I gave him a week’s notice just so he could watch replays of the 1980 Masters telecast to refresh his memory a little. It worked.
To my relief, Jack had lost none of his dry wit, cheeky charisma or forthright honesty. While he brushed off the diagnosis in typical Jack fashion (“Don’t worry about me, I’m all right”), he waxed lyrical about Seve and his love for Augusta National, with a few brief pauses for reflection in between. Jackie chimed in when a particular moment escaped him. It’s patently clear that Jackie, like she has been since the day she walked into Jack’s life, is his rock. She’s a gem.
“Now, you make sure you look after this lady, Jack, all right?” I ordered.
“You can’t control women, you know that!” he fired back with that trademark husky laugh.
We concluded with a look ahead to the next Jack Newton Celebrity Classic after this year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19. I could see the glint in his eye just thinking about what was in store for the next edition.
“You’re not going to let this thing slow you down are you, mate?”
Before Jack could reply, his rock stepped in: “Ha! It might slow me down, not him!”
After finishing the call, I got thinking about one of the first times I ever met Jack. It was at the Celebrity Classic. I was young, fearless and keen to let my hair down after a long year writing about the game. Jack saw me, invited me to sit at his table and passed on his No.1 piece of advice he gives to any first-timers attending the week: “Remember, it’s the Melbourne Cup not a Golden Slipper,” in reference to the dangers of hitting the booze too hard, too early in the three-day festival of golf.
It was sage advice indeed.
Life is meant to be a marathon, not a sprint. We can only hope Jack’s Alzheimer’s agrees.