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Ever since he took his first swings in the garden of his family’s Campbeltown home, followed in short order by the links of Machrihanish, golf has been a constant in Scott Stewart’s life.
Thinking about it now, several moments stand out. Watching a teenage Tiger Woods on the range at St Andrews during the 1995 Open. Being there for Andrew Coltart’s hole-in-one at the Alfred Dunhill Cup in 1998. Competing against Adam Scott and Nick Dougherty in the Golf Foundation Team Championship for Schools at Loch Lomond in 1997. Winning the Liberton Club Championship in 2020. The list goes on.
None of those are his most vivid memory, though. The first thing that comes to mind is the one and only time he ever NR’d.
“My dad wasn’t best pleased,” he smiles. “He pulled me aside and told me that, no matter how bad a day you’re having, no matter how tough things get, you never, ever give up. Quitting is not an option.” It’s a mindset that has stuck with Scott ever since and is an attitude he has deployed as he faces his most formidable opponent yet: motor neurone disease.
The 41-year-old was diagnosed with the condition in March this year, several months after he first started to notice symptoms. He felt the first warning signs just hours after former England rugby international Ed Slater shared his own MND diagnosis on BBC Breakfast. “I was woken in the middle of the night by my left leg twitching,” he says. “Instinctively, I knew something wasn’t right.”
Scott is well aware of his prognosis. Currently, there is no known cure for MND. The average life expectancy following diagnosis is between two to three years. He has seen some of his sporting heroes – most notably South African World Cup winner Joost van der Westhuizen and British Lion Doddie Weir – taken by the disease. He knows full well the effect it is having on former rugby league star Rob Burrow and the toll it took on the late Professor Stephen Hawking. He understands it all but is determined to pay it no mind. His body may be failing him, but Scott Stewart’s spirit is unbroken. Resolute. Defiant.
“The way I see it, I’m three down with three to play,” he says. “But I’m not beaten yet and I’m not giving up. I’m taking this fight to the 19th hole and beyond for as long as I possibly can, I promise you that.”
Sitting in the Dormie House at Gleneagles, Scott looks like any other golfer who has just walked off the Kings’ Course. The collar of a floral-patterned polo shirt peeks out from beneath a light blue Lyle & Scott quarter-zip jumper as he tucks into a sausage bap and Americano. He’s a scratch golfer and looks like one. His eyes, though, well up as he describes how he has probably walked 18 holes for the last time.
“My body is holding up okay but I’m starting to feel a slow, creeping change in both my legs,” he says. “Even with an electric push trolley, I feel like 18 holes on foot might be beyond me now. Stairs are getting harder, heavy lifting is a thing of the past and I’ve lost a bit of power and distance in my swing. I haven’t hit a ball in about six weeks, which is probably the longest I’ve gone in the last 15 years.”
Aside from his new wife Robyn, whom he married in a small ceremony shortly before Christmas, golf is the love of Scott’s life. He was two when he first picked up a club. Aged five, his family moved to central Scotland and rugby gradually took over. A talented player, he went on to represent Scotland at Under-19 level, playing alongside future full internationals Kelly Brown, Phil Goodman and Chris Cusiter, as well as Graeme Morrison, Rory Lawson and Ally Hogg.
If Scott’s winters were for rugby, summer was for golf. When he was 13, he got lesson from a pro called Derek Barbour and something clicked. Further coaching with Kevin Craggs followed and, in short order, his handicap tumbled from 12 to three. Consequently, doors started to open. He played his first competitive round at the age of 12 in the company of future Eisenhower Trophy winner Callum Macaulay.
In 1998, just a few months after playing alongside Scott, Dougherty and Co. in the Team Championship for Schools, he shot a 60 – with a three-putt bogey – at his home course, Dollar. Around the turn of the century, he played in university competitions at Open rota courses before 15 years working at an international summer camp in Crans-Montana allowed him to play lots of golf in the Alps and renew acquaintances with Australian Scott, who lived in Switzerland at the time.
As good as he got, and as high-profile as the circles he moved in were, Scott insists there was never any chance of him turning professional. “I was good but those guys – Callum and Wallace Booth and so on – were exceptional,” he says. “I’m not a high achiever and I don’t try to pretend that I am.”
Instead, Scott pursued a career as a career guidance practitioner and, more recently, set up an eBay business called The 59 Golf Shop. “I sell second-hand headcovers and adjustable wrenches for drivers. So, if you’ve lost, say, your old TaylorMade R1 headcover but still have the driver, that’s where I come in.”
Last year, he carded a level-par 71 to win a club trophy at Gleneagles and reached the matchplay final of the scratch singles and foursomes, the latter alongside his dad, Iain. All the while, he was oblivious to the changes happening to his body.
“I received my diagnosis on a Friday and, yeah, that weekend was tough,” he admits. “I didn’t get much sleep. Nothing can prepare you for hearing something like that. I mean, I had an inkling that something was seriously wrong. I’d had a bunch of tests and an MRI scan and so on. But it’s still a terrible shock to hear somebody say that you’re terminally ill, that there’s nothing they can do and to, basically, just focus on enjoying what’s left of your life.”
The following week, he went for a scheduled golf lesson with former European Tour pro Craig Lee.
“I told him my news and, honestly, he was just brilliant. We immediately set to work on trying to make compensations in my swing to offset the physical challenges I would likely face. Things like hitting a high, slinging draw from off my right toe, or a low, running fade. Basically, anything to help me figure out other ways to get the ball around the course.”
In doing so, Scott has been able to keep on playing golf with his dad. “He’s 75 now and, at his best, played off two at Machrihanish in his 30s with a set of Hogan blades and Toney Penna persimmons,” he smiles. “I’m really close to both of my parents. They sacrificed a lot for me and my sister when we growing up and I’ve got nothing but brilliant memories. My dad and I went to the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in 2014 and were the first members out on the PGA Centenary at 8am when it re-opened on the Tuesday after the event. Sometimes, we’ll spend the whole round chatting. Others, we’ll play mostly in silence. But we never give a quarter. We’re both very competitive. I’ve been very lucky.”
As much as he loves golf, Scott admits that it has also become a cruel way to monitor the decline in his health. “My ball speed, clubhead speed, distance – they’ve all come back to me over the last year or so. But I’m determined to keep going for as long as I can. Even if that only means clipping a few balls at the range, I’ll do it.
“This game has given me so much. If I think back to being 14 or 15 and playing with men three or four times my age in medals, and having to spend four hours in their company, the skills and confidence I learned from that I’ve been able to apply in so many ways. Golf has given me grit, determination, patience and perseverance. More than anything else, it’s taught me the value of acceptance. Hit the shot, accept the outcome, move on to the next one.
“This has helped me so much since my diagnosis. I’ve got no choice to accept it. I can’t just take a pill, go for a nap, wake up and it’s gone. That’s not my reality. So, I have to accept it, enjoy today and plan for tomorrow.”
If Scott has any frustration, it’s that more isn’t being done to eradicate MND. The first known descriptions of the condition date back to at least the early part of the 19th century. In 1869, a French neurologist called Jean-Martin Charcot identified a connection between the symptoms and the underlying associated neurological problems and, in 1874, he began using the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS for short. ALS is most widely used in the USA – alongside Lou Gehrig’s disease – and was the inspiration for the ‘ice bucket challenge’ that went viral on social media in 2014.
In the 150 years since it was named, medical advancements in the treatment of MND have been limited. There remains no known cure. In the UK, there is only one drug available, a prescription medication called Riluzole which provides a ‘best average outcome’ of three to six months of additional life free from mechanical ventilation or other assisted breathing.
A cancer drug, called Interleukin-2, has shown signs of providing better outcomes for a subset of patients but results from trials have not yet been published, nor is there a timeline for it.
In the absence of a meaningful, proven solution, Scott has decided to fight his own fight without assistance.
“I’m prepared to see where my body can take me,” he says. “If and when the conditions are right for me to participate in a clinical trial, I may well do so, but that time is not now. I’m told the average life expectancy after diagnosis is up to three years but the sportsman in me only sees that as a challenge. If I live three years and one day after diagnosis, I’ll have beaten the odds and won.
“What’s far more important to me is raising awareness. In the same way as my golf story could be anybody else’s golf story, so, too, could my illness. Motor neurone disease doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care how famous you are or aren’t. It’s not interested in how old you are or how well you hit the golf ball. It can come for anybody at any time, and the fact that nothing exists to fight it head on – and win – when it does makes me so angry. We can and must do more.”
He’s absolutely right. Currently one in 300 people will be diagnosed with MND at some point in their lifetime. Think about that for a second. One in 300. Now, picture the packed first tee grandstand at the Ryder Cup in Rome. Can you see all those people? All those spectators singing and cheering and dancing in the bleachers? All those fans so full of life, colour and vigour?
If current levels persist, 15 of them will, like Scott, receive an MND diagnosis.
“That’s why organisations like the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, the MND Association, The Darby Rimmer Foundation, 4Ed and so on are so important,” he adds. “They are leading the way in raising both awareness and funds to defeat this illness and, for long as I am able, I will do everything I can to support them, too.”
Scott’s courage in the face of being dealt such an awful hand is undeniably inspiring. He admits he has moments where he grieves for the future he had always dreamed of but is sustained by the words of the Stewart clan motto. Virescit vulnere virtus. Courage grows strong at a wound. “I carry those words with me every day,” he says. “And I hopefully will for many more days to come.”
FIND OUT MORE
For more information on how you can help the fight against motor neurone disease, contact the following organisations:
My Name’5 Doddie Foundation
The Darby Rimmer Foundation
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