Johnstone brings lighter side to Internationals
For as long of an ordeal as the Presidents Cup was, thanks to sopping rain, weather stoppages and a muddy, demanding golf course to walk, the guess is, the boys on the International team would have been fully entertained had it lasted another day or two.
Tony Johnstone was in the house.
More accurately, he was in the team room and on the course, one of Nick Price’s trusted assistants, a savvy veteran of this global golf business and a lifelong friend. And when he was through with all that, Johnstone had plenty more to give, most of it of the lighthearted flavor.
“Hysterical,” said Adam Scott, who came to know Johnstone in 2001 when was a young man finding his way on the European Tour. “Just great to have him around.”
Johnstone, 57, is a treasure, one of those gifted storytellers who has lived a charmed life and fully appreciates that he has been so blessed. Nicknamed “Ovies,” he is considered by many to be perhaps the finest bunker player of his day. “And they were right,” he said with a smile. “Just don’t tell Gary (Player) that.”
He knows that today’s pro golfer has million-dollar purses, private jets and glitzy courtesy cars at his disposal, but he doesn’t have what Johnstone had in those younger days in Europe and South Africa and throughout Asia: simpler times, tougher travel, more trust, stronger friendships and less chance to be corrupted by money. All of that allowed for a bit more fun.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Johnstone said, when asked why we are devoid of the sort of characters who played in his era – a Simon Hobday, for instance.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that when we were on the European Tour (in the 1970s and '80s) and we traveled, you had your caddie and you had your buddies. If you had kids, your wife was at home with the kids. So it was you, your caddie and the rest of the guys in the field. Really, we had too much fun.
“Nowadays, guys travel with their manager, their coach, their sports psychologist, their dietician, their physio, and they’ve all got their little entourages and they’ve become very insular and don’t seem to mix as much.
“There was a great camaraderie (in his day). And if you needed help, you’d round up a couple of the guys and say, ‘Guys, help me. I’m playing like a donkey.’ "
In many respects, that is why Johnstone loved his week at the Presidents Cup, because not only was he mixed in with the sort of eclectic group he grew up with on the European Tour – Aussies and South Africans, South Americans and Japanese – but the week was about bonding and hanging out and sharing talk about the game they love.
The guess is, Johnstone had tales of a less glamorous European Tour, substantiated many of the legendary stories about Hobday, and re-told a few Seve Ballesteros offerings. Chances are that on more than one occasion, Johnstone gave thanks for being blessed with friends such as Nick Price and Mark McNulty.
They grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, passionate about their friendships and their golf. For Price, it was a sensible move to focus on the PGA Tour. “I decided early on in my career that I didn’t have the right game to play in the states,” Johnstone said. “Nick had the game for the states. He hit it high and soft. I used to love coming over, but Europe was my hunting ground.”
McNulty (16 wins) and Johnstone (six) carved out successful careers on the European PGA Tour and were dominant players on South Africa's Sunshine Tour. McNulty finished second to Nick Faldo in the 1990 Open Championship and sat inside the top 10 in the world rankings for a healthy period of time in 1987-92.
But, of course, it was Price whose career took off – to No. 1 in the world rankings, to three major titles, to a plaque in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Just be warned that if you ask Johnstone how proud he is of his countryman, you'd best have a box of Kleenex.
“Massively,” Johnson said, but for 30 seconds it was all he could say. He choked back the emotions, apologized, then conceded “I’m a bit of a crybaby.”
If you know Price, you’d totally understand Johnstone’s reaction.
“To see him remain the same person through all (the success), the wonderful human being he is," Johnstone said. "He’s always got respect for everybody.”
When Price more than a year ago was named International team captain for the 2013 Presidents Cup, his first order of business was bringing McNulty and Johnstone into the mix as assistants. “Mark’s the quiet, smart one,” Johnstone said. “I’m the noisy one.”
Johnstone is also in possession of good humor and strong faith, owed to more than his years of European Tour travel, not to mention this business of multiple sclerosis.
Diagnosed more than 10 years ago, he doesn’t deny that his first reaction could be described as horrifying. His uneven coordination was the first sign of trouble, then came the loss of memory. Johnstone tells of the day he had to refer to a school sweater to remember his son’s name. His spirits crushed, Johnstone tried to wallow in self-pity and credits his great friends for not allowing that.
The day John Bland called? Johnstone told his “best buddy on tour” of the onset of MS and especially the loss of memory. “I can’t remember what happened five minutes ago,” Johnstone told the South African.
Bland offered his encouragement and his prayers, then hung up.
“Five minutes later, the phone rang and it was John. He said, ‘I just heard you got diagnosed,’ and he asked how I was doing. I had to stop and think,” Johnstone said. “I kept thinking, ‘This is awful. I kept thinking that I had just talked to John, but I wasn’t sure.’ “
Johnstone tried to explain the eerie feeling to Bland, but “all I heard was laughter.” Bland told Johnstone that he just wanted to see if this memory-loss thing was real.
“The bastard,” Johnstone said, laughing. “That’s when you know you have good friends, because only good friends would do that.”
For all the times Johnstone navigated a two-putt par to make it into weekend play, the greatest cut he ever made occurred when he got accepted into a program that would treat MS patients with the experimental drug, Alemtuzumab. Johnstone explains that the powerful drug pretty much shuts down the immune system, re-programs it, so to speak, and brings it back on line. It was a risk, but “I didn’t care,” Johnstone said. “I’ll try anything. Only 120 people could be in the program. I was the 120th person chosen. I know how lucky I am.”
Given the ultimate mulligan, Johnstone counts his blessings every day. His MS in remission, he was even able to return to playing the European Senior Tour and when he won in 2008, then again in 2009, he could not describe the emotions.
“My game has never been the same,” Johnstone said. “But I’ve been given back a lot of what I had lost.”
What remains intact is 100 percent of his perspective.
“I don’t like people who get beyond their station in life,” he said. “And I don’t appreciate golfers who don’t appreciate that they are doing something that they love and getting paid millions for it. If you can’t treat less lucky people well, then really, you need a serious slap and a wakeup call.”
When the competition was over and the Internationals’ strong singles performance had fallen short in an 18 1/2-15 1/2 loss to the U.S. at Muirfield Village, Johnstone and McNulty joined Price and the 12 players for the post-round news conference. Yes, the team had lost, but the smile on Johnstone’s face as he shook Price’s hand confirmed that he is a victorious man.
“At the end of your playing days, if you haven’t been a decent person, you’re going to be the loneliest one out there,” Johnstone said. “I don’t care how much money you’ve got. You are in life who your friends are.”