When the North Queensland Cowboys media department draw up their media schedule for the week there are two lists: One for Johnathan Thurston and another for everyone else.
Thurston, widely regarded as the best rugby league player in the world, is one of few NRL players able to transcend their sport. In Townsville he is nearing God-like status, a status that will become official if he is able to deliver the region an NRL premiership before his latest contract runs out at the end of the 2018 season.
In the Origin arena he is racking up numbers that will see him surpass the very greatest icons of the game. Kids would rather stand awkwardly in front of him as he conducts an interview than crane their heads skyward to see the fighter jets that populate the skies over Townsville.
Thurston is as hungry for success as they come, but if you think that dog-with-a-bone tenaciousness only manifests itself on the footy field, you haven’t seen the man they call ‘JT’ swing a golf club.
We caught up with the Origin star recently to get his take on his new passion…
AGD: When did you first pick up a golf club?
Thurston: Probably when I was back at the Canterbury Bulldogs. A few of the boys there – Brent Sherwin and the Hughes boys, Braith [Anasta] played so I bought a cheap set of clubs that I could afford and it started from there. It was like $250 for clubs and a bag; I don’t even remember what they were.
Have you upgraded since?
Yeah. I’ve been getting looked after by PING. I’ve got the i20s at the moment. They’re a good set of clubs – they’ve brought my handicap down, which is always good.
Did you have an interest in golf before you started playing?
Nah. I’d never played it at all. All the boys down there were playing it so I thought I’d jump on board and try it. I guess I just caught the bug.
Did the bug strike straight away?
No, it took a while because I was so crap – air swings and all – and then when I got up here [to Townsville] I found that Ty [Williams] and Josh [Hannay] liked playing along with a few other boys, ‘Payney’ (Aaron Payne), ‘Mango’ (Matt Bowen). Now there’s ‘Coops’ (Gavin Cooper) and Matty Scott who have picked up the bug. So there are a few of us that play.
What got you hooked as a regular player?
I suppose it’s just that competitiveness with the boys. Coops is off about 11 so we’re all trying to get down to single figures. We try to have a hit on our days off when we can.
Is it purely fun or another competitive outlet?
It’s definitely fun. No doubt it’s a love-hate relationship [laughs] but I find it relaxing and really enjoy it.
Do your tee shots have a similar shape to your hooking kicks at goal?
Nope – totally opposite! I’ve got the fade going off the tee. There’s a lot of talk between the similar mechanics behind a golf swing and a kick at goal. Mine are nothing alike at all. It would be nice if it did. My swing would be more reliable!
When your swing goes wrong what happens?
It goes out to the right. It’s not like a slice, I think it’s just the timing of where I hit the ball and it generally just goes straight right. That’s where I miss most of my shots.
Have you ever had lessons?
I think I’ve had two. When I first got up here [QLD] and then again three years ago.
How many of the Maroons like to play?
There are a few of the boys who love golf. ‘Mylesy’ (Nate Myles) and especially ‘Smithy’ (Queensland captain Cameron Smith). I like getting Smithy’s cash.
That’s interesting because we spoke to Cameron, and when
we asked him who was the better golfer, he said you were more consistent but that at his best, he’s better.
[Laughs] He just hasn’t brought his best yet obviously. There are about half a dozen of us that normally go for a hit, sometimes more when we get a day off there. Mal and the coaching staff are pretty good like that; they let us enjoy our downtime when it happens.
Who is the one organising it and getting a game together?
Smithy. I’m not too sure how much golf he plays down there (Melbourne, where he captains the Storm). He’s got three kids so I don’t think he gets out too much but he’s normally the one who organises it.
Is Cam’s fashion on the fairways designed to be funny
or is that just how he dresses?
That’s just him. You don’t know what you’re going to get.
Can he play?
He can play. He’s got a great swing.
Does he trash talk?
Nah, there’s not much trash talk that goes on actually, unless we put wagers on it. It’s more just the downtime and relaxing and getting away from the intensity of Origin camp.
You play at Rowes Bay Golf Club in Townsville?
I play Rowes, Townsville and sometimes Willows, so I get around.
Is there a favourite hole at Rowes Bay?
Probably the ninth, which is a par 5. You’ve got to drive down to the bunkers and if you hit over the top of that, sometimes you can get over a little lake with your second which is about 50 metres short of the green. So you’ve got to try and have a crack at that, which most of the boys try to do if their drives are any good. I like that hole.
What are the strongest parts
of your game?
I don’t know actually. I’m probably just pretty good all round. My short game is where I struggle the most. I’ve snapped my 58-degree wedge a couple of times. That one gives me the S#@ts! Sometimes I hit it fat and take a lot of dirt and sometimes I just skull it and it goes way over the back of the green. It’s tested my patience a lot.
Do you like watching golf?
Yeah I do. The missus doesn’t like it when it’s on. I don’t mind watching both the ladies and the men.
What’s your favourite Major?
Probably the Masters. If the golf’s on TV I’ll sit there and watch it for an hour … or however long the missus lets me watch it! [Laughs]
Do you take an interest in what you like and don’t like about a course or particular holes when you play?
I definitely take more interest in how I want to play the hole. Sometimes I don’t hit my 3-wood or my hybrid that well, so on the par-5s I’ll just hit a 5-iron or a 6-iron (second shot) that leaves me 120 or 130 metres out and use my wedge in. I suppose I think about it a little bit more now.
Who is the worst golfer amongst the Maroons?
All the boys are pretty good. Nate hits them good, so does Matty Scott when he’s not hooking them into the bushes.
What’s your most memorable day on the golf course?
At Rowes Bay. They’ve got a par-3 course and on the first par 3 I was playing with a mate and I hit a hole-in-one. It killed about a thousand worms along the way but you don’t paint a picture of how it gets there. We thought the ball went over the back. When we got up there it was in the cup. That’s the only one I’ve ever got.
What’s the best course you’ve played?
There have been a few. Royal Pines, Sanctuary Cove, Lakelands, Bonville. I played Bonville when I was at the ‘Dogs, that was a great course. Paradise Palms, Sea Temple … We used to go up to Paradise Palms a fair bit if we had the weekend or a few days off.
Do you ever get to tee it up on overseas tours like England?
A few years ago we had a couple of rounds. At a World Cup a few of the boys had one or two rounds but I didn’t get on board with that … too cold. Even though I try to better myself, golf’s great for a bit of downtime. It can get frustrating but I really enjoy it.