Tony’s miraculous Presidents Cup dance

Harare – Ten years ago Tony Johnstone used to forget the name of his son and would struggle just to open the door, as he battled multiple sclerosis, and golf wasn’t something that concerned his family at a time of severe distress.

The Zimbabwean golf legend could barely walk, and doctors told him that he would never play again, but the sport was so far away from his mind, back then, the only thing that mattered was his health and the signs were not looking good.

“When my left side went numb, I thought I was having a stroke but it was diagnosed as a viral infection and I was given steroids, which did help for a short while,” Johnstone told the Daily Mail of England.

“But two months later, I began to feel dodgy again. My co-ordination deteriorated and my golf game vanished.

“My short-term memory began to suffer, too. I'd ask Karen (his wife) the same question 10 times over without realising and once forgot my son's name. I'd chat to people, and then greet them like long-lost friends moments later.

“Then my long-term memory started to go. Recalling childhood details was impossible. The whole family was terrified.”

And for a good reason too.

During pre-qualifying for the 2003 British Open in Kent, Johnstone, a past winner of the Zimbabwe Open, played for nine holes and could go no farther as walking became virtually impossible as his condition deteriorated.

He was told there was no cure for his condition and he would never play again.

“The doctors said I'd never play tournament golf again. I was devastated,” said Johnstone.

But Johnstone refused to throw in the towel and, after a trip to South Africa in 2004, he was advised to join a group of patients on a cocktail of drugs that were being used in a trial session and, the rest, as they say is history.

Johnstone is not only back in good health but has won a tournament, the Jersey Senior Classic, and he will be one of the three vice-captains of the International team, which has a huge Zimbabwean flavour, which takes on the United States in the Presidents Cup at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dblin, Ohio, from October 3-6.

“To use a golfing analogy, I consider that this was the best cut I've ever made in my life,” said Johnstone.

“One of the first effects of MS is to make you fade out of view as you physically and mentally decline. I'm in a unique position of knowing what it's like to come back.”

The other vice-captain is also a former Zimbabwe international golfer, Tony McNulty, while the skipper is Nick Price, widely considered to be the greatest golfer to emerge out of Zimbabwe, who won three Major titles and was world number one in 1994.

The International Team also has another Zimbabwean golfer, Brendon de Jonge, who came in as the captain’s pick

Johnstone’s focus is on guiding the International Team to beat the United States in the Presidents Cup on their soil.

“I think we’ve got a great team and the guys are really fired up,” Johnstone told the official website of the European Tour, his home throughout his career.

“It’s tough for Tim Clark and Thongchai Jaidee, who were close to making it. They probably both lacked a little bit of length for Muirfield Village, particularly if it’s going to be wet and even longer than normal.

“He (Price) said the hardest thing was having to phone the guys who hadn’t made it.

“We’ve got a really good side with a great mix of youth and experience. It’s good we’ve got a lot of young guys because the Internationals haven’t got a great record with seven losses, one draw and one win, so there’s a lack of scar tissue with the younger players.

“They haven’t been out there on three or four losing sides and thinking, ‘Here we go again’. They want to prove themselves. 

“Brendan de Jonge has played fantastically lately, as has Marc Leishman. Branden Grace is a hugely exciting player and will be a great asset to the team, and Louis (Oosthuizen) and Richard Sterne are also making their debuts and will want to show what they can do.”

Given the personal challenges that he has had to handle, especially in the past 10 years, it’s amazing that Johnstone still gets excited about things that happen on the golf course.

But Johnstone is a man who loves every minute of his second coming, and maybe that explains why he can’t wait to be part of a team that can tame the Americans in their backyard.

“I get so excited when I think about it, it’s ridiculous! I feel like I’ve had 10 cups of caffeine,” Johnstone told the European Tour website.

“I saw all the guys over in the States at a meeting, and they all spoke up and said their piece.

 They are all just so determined to turn this thing around.

“I think the Presidents Cup needs to Internationals to win a bit. If it’s lopsided, people tend to lose interest. 

“Nick loves the tournament and wants it to be a great contest. If it’s close, it becomes a thrilling spectacle, and hopefully we’ll have that in a few weeks’ time.”

The events in Ohio will be closely followed in Zimbabwe.

After all, this team has a huge Zimbabwean influence, and while the results from the course will be what matters come next month, even if the International Team loses against Tiger Woods and company, you will feel it will be a victory for Johnstone.

Given what he has faced, and fought, in his personal battles, the Zimbabwean veteran has already won a huge battle – just to be part of the International Team, exactly 10 years after doctors told him that he would never be part of a golf team again.

For a man who used to forget the name of his son, just 10 years ago, just knowing the score is a huge victory.

September 2013
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