Sydney’s Jordan Zunic was a star amateur golfer on the cusp of turning pro. But a near-fatal car accident in the US changed his life, and his career plan. Two years later, he wins the New Zealand Open. This is his remarkable story…
At an intersection in Little Rock, Arkansas, a car sits on its side after being clipped in an accident. Inside the vehicle, a promising golfer lies with blood spurting rapidly from his head. The situation is dire, but his training for elite golf is about to save his life.
Conscious, he recalls his sports psychology exercises and successfully lowers his heart rate.
For Jordan Zunic, this day in August 2013 would change his life.
The positive side of the change wouldn’t present itself for 19 months, until the Wollongong local is on the 18th fairway of The Hills Golf Club in Queenstown, during the final round of the New Zealand Open. Tied with compatriot David Bransdon on 20-under par, Zunic faces a 150-metre approach and a shot at victory.
His 9-iron bounces and rattles the flagstick, before a two-foot birdie putt finds the bottom of the cup. With only three tournaments of experience in the paid ranks, any pro could be forgiven for stumbling under such pressure. Not Zunic. He’s just glad to be alive.
When the winning putt dropped, the emotion of Zunic’s ordeal – intensive rehabilitation, form struggles and personal sacrifice – was simply too much to contain.
“I had worked really hard, but I couldn’t believe it. That’s why the tears came out,” Zunic says at Port Kembla Golf Club, in between warm congratulations from members passing by.
“My family were back home. I was just thinking about them and what it would mean for us as a family, so I was in shock.
“Even though that accident was horrible, I feel it’s made me stronger. I really appreciate life now. I realise how fragile it is.”
The last time this writer saw Jordan Zunic, he was a pint-sized fellow junior golfer, though at 6-foot-4 he now towers above me. Zunic has retained the same polite and softly spoken demeanour he had as a teenager.
Even after collecting a substantial winner’s cheque at the tier-one tournament, days later he kept his word to work his shift in the pro shop.
At 21 years of age, Zunic was on track to turn professional at the end of 2013. He had a solid year that included winning the Tasmanian Open, making the final 16 at the British Amateur and consecutive top five finishes in the St Andrews Links Trophy.
Before the accident, he qualified for the US Amateur – the very next stop on his itinerary.
“All my life all I wanted was to play the US Amateur. It’s one of the most prestigious tournaments there is,” Zunic says, now 23.
Zunic suffered 40 per cent blood loss from tearing his temporal artery in that collision. He credits training by Matt Howe (Zunic’s sports psychologist since the age of 15 ) for his survival in Little Rock.
It also helped that the driver happened to be a doctor. While other passengers (Aussie amateurs Ricky Kato and Viraat Badhwar) escaped with just a few bruises, sitting in the back window seat, Zunic’s head struck the pole that caused the car to flip. The driver contacted his friend at the nearby hospital, a top neurosurgeon, and alerted them of the incoming emergency patient. A few hours and several blood transfusions later, Zunic was out of surgery.
“Straight away I was wondering if I would play the US Amateur, that’s all I was thinking about,” Zunic says while gingerly touching the scar above his right ear.
“I didn’t feel like I was close to dying, but the doctors said if I had been there five minutes later, my heart would have just stopped. It was scary.”
Even scarier for Zoran and Tania Zunic back in Australia, who received a panicked phone call from their son’s then-girlfriend moments after the crash.
Kato had found Zunic’s phone 50m down the road and called the last number dialled. At 3.30am on a Sunday morning Australian time, she relayed the little information Kato could give. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, especially for the close-knit Zunic family.
“For two hours we didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Zoran says. “Later I got the photos that Gary (the driver) took, which I don’t show anybody. When he first came into the hospital … he was a corpse.”
Zoran went to Arkansas as soon as he could. Remarkably, after the accident Zunic was told he still had a 50/50 chance of playing the US Amateur.
Even when X-rays revealed he had three fractures in his elbow, Zunic flew to Boston and waited until the very last moment to make a decision on whether he would play.
The pain was too much. Zunic was forced to withdraw from the event.
In the months that followed, he patiently completed the tiresome rehab on his arm. He also battled with post-traumatic stress that would send him into panic attacks at the sight of blood and before travelling abroad.
“Mentally, it was tough because I was at such a good point in my career before the crash,” Zunic says.
But with his family’s support through this difficult period, Zunic was more determined than ever to pursue his dream.
“It didn’t matter what they needed to do, even though finances were pretty tight the last few years. To have parents like that … I’m so thankful.”
When Zunic returned to competing, he was ranked the No.1 Australian amateur at the beginning of 2014. He had several top-five finishes in Australian events and won the prestigious China Amateur in Beijing.
Then after narrowly missing out on a card for the PGA Tour of Australasia, Zunic decided to turn pro in January this year.
Three professional starts later, he was holding the BMW New Zealand Open trophy.
The kid who dropped out of school in Year 10 to focus on his golf career, the one who had cheated death in a foreign country and whose parents had selflessly sold the family home to support him, was finally being rewarded.
Zunic now has full status on the Australasian Tour until 2018, some status on the OneAsia Tour and three invitations to Japanese Tour events.
His next goal is to get on the Web.com or European Tour, but for now, Zunic is simply enjoying the moment.
“I’m just happy to be out there playing and to be breathing,” he says.
“But hopefully my family will be able to be there when I win another tournament, so I can go off the green and just hug them straight away.”