Tony Johnstone defies the medical odds every time he tees the ball up and now, as he approaches the first anniversary of his return to competitive golf, the former PGA Championship winner can take stock of the past 12 months from the happy position atop the leaderboard at The Gloria Classic, which is being played over the immaculate New Course at Gloria Golf Resort, Belek, Turkey.
Johnstone carded a wonderfully controlled 67 that contained five birdies and no dropped shots to earn a share of the first round lead alongside Delroy Cambridge of Jamaica and Stewart Ginn of Australia.
The trio are one stroke clear of Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Bobby Lincoln of South Africa on a truly international leaderboard.
“I played really well. I have a new driver this week – a Callaway FT 5 - and that has made a huge difference,” admitted Johnstone. “For the past couple of years I haven’t been able to find a driver that I felt really confident with. Driving has traditionally been one of my biggest strengths, but last year I was missing too many fairways.
“Now I am swinging well and happy with everything. I have practised hard at Sunningdale and I said to my caddie when we arrived here that I felt completely prepared, whilst this time last year I felt completely unprepared.”
The fact that Johnstone felt ill-prepared for his Rookie year on the European Seniors Tour was completely understandable given the turmoil that had preceded it.
In 2004, the Zimbabwean’s world was rocked on its axis when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was told by doctors that he would never play golf again, a crushing blow for a man who has won 22 times around the world in a professional career dating back to 1979.
However, Johnstone was not about to be beaten and got his name on a select list for a revolutionary clinical trial. The trial worked so well that he was able to return to the fairways in May last year.
“I have been fine since - no symptoms for over two years now. The only thing I suffer with is humidity, but that is common to every single MS sufferer. The breeze helped with that today and for a guy who was told he would never play again, I am having a great time.”
Ginn is another who is enjoying his second season on the European Seniors Tour, albeit for different reasons.
The Malaysian-based Australian is a Senior Major winner on the US Champions Tour and was desperately unlucky not to finish 2006 with his maiden victory on the European Seniors Tour, having finished second-fourth-second-fourth in the final four events of the year.
However, he says he has identified what he must do if he is to past the winning post. “It’s a patience game and last year I felt I was a bit tight, a bit gung-ho in trying to force a win. I want to knock a few over this year, but I am going to stay a bit more relaxed about it.”
Drawn in the same group as Sam Torrance for Friday’s opening round, Ginn was off to a flying start with birdies at the opening two holes. He picked up another shot at the par five ninth to turn in 34 and parred his way through the back nine before finishing with a flourish.
At the par three 17th he knocked an eight iron to three feet and sank the putt, and on the last green he holed from ten feet for a fifth birdie of the day and a faultless round of 67.
The par five 18th proved to be the most giving of holes in Friday’s conditions and no one benefited more than Cambridge. The powerful Jamaican, who struggled a little with his driver all day, got a fortunate ricochet out of the trees that sent his wayward drive back into the middle of the fairway. From there he hit a five iron and two-putted from 30 feet for birdie and a 67.
On the prospect of achieving his fifth European Seniors Tour title, Cambridge commented: “My putting feels good, my hands feel good, so all I need to do is get the driving going. Then we’ll see.”
Sam Torrance of Scotland, the reigning Order of Merit champion, is two strokes off the pace after a three under par 69 while Gordon J Brand of England, who is chasing his fourth win in five events and his third consecutively, recovered from a poor start to his back nine by birdieing the closing three holes to finish with a 70.