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She's had a coronary, a fractured spine, a hip replacement, but at 90 inspiring Portstewart great-grandmother Joyce has just won a golfing competition

 

When Joyce Burrell was told she could no longer play her beloved badminton, she took up golf instead... and has never looked back.

The feisty nonagenarian tells Ivan Little how she fell in love with the sport and how she was once denounced by anti-abortion activists.

Her birth certificate says she's 90 but the irrepressible Joyce Burrell and her remarkable sporting achievements make a mockery of her advancing years and the health problems she's had to endure down the years, including a fractured spine and a heart attack. Not to mention a dodgy hip that needed replacing.

The Portstewart great-grandmother, who has an intoxicating thirst for life, has just defied the accepted nonagenarian norms by breaking new ground for a woman of her age on the hallowed ground of her golf club.

For not only has Portstewart's oldest woman member beaten all-comers to win a club competition on the Riverside course, but she's also had her handicap cut.

"It's crazy, isn't it?" she laughs. "Imagine cutting a 90-year-old's handicap. Winning the competition was just a fluke."

Colleagues disagree, however. They say the victory and the handicap reduction were no more than Joyce deserved.

Ladies captain Julie Corbett says: "The decision about the handicap was based on Joyce's points over the last while. She is a great competitor and she is also a really colourful and popular character around the club.

"She plays every week even in the sort of wet and windy weather that would put other people off from going out. Joyce often makes me think that golf must be the secret of a long life. "

Jovial Joyce has caused more than just a few eyebrows to rise in the past on and off the golf course.

No more so than when she continued playing badminton despite excruciating back pain for 20 years until medics finally found out that her spine was fractured.

Joyce had been almost six months pregnant when she hurt her back in a fall on concrete which also left her with a broken arm.

Joyce and her doctors were more concerned about the unborn baby than about the issues with her back.

"But it just got worse and worse. I was in agony," says Joyce. "I saw consultants, chiropractors, physiotherapists, football trainers, faith healers and I even went to Harley Street to see the top man there.

"He wrote back to my GP to say there was nothing wrong with my back and that I was imagining it."

Joyce knew that the constant discomfort from her back wasn't in her head yet she still refused to throw in the towel in on her badminton career and insisted on battling through the pain barrier for decades, even though her opponents were aware that she was suffering.

Joyce says: "My philosophy has always been that I would rather wear out than rust out."

Relatives also realised things weren't right and after seeing her struggling to get out of a car, one family member got in touch with a friend who was specialist in Musgrave Park hospital in Belfast.

Joyce says: "He discovered that I had fractured three vertebrae all those years ago." And just after the belated diagnosis Joyce created medical history by becoming the first person in Northern Ireland to have a spinal fusion.

Following the surgery, Joyce hung up her badminton racket. But her thumbs weren't ready for twiddling so Joyce resolved to take up golf instead.

She knew that hitting her shots might pose problems, but she reckoned golf would be a slower alternative to badminton.

A friend made appointments for the two of them to take golf lessons from the Portstewart professional at the time, Johnny Hunter, whose son Alan would one day marry Joyce's daughter.

As the January temperatures plummeted, Johnny gave the two pals lessons inside the club shop on a coconut mat in front of a mirror.

"The weather was so horrendous that we didn't get out over the next weeks but we battled on," says Joyce, who found herself falling in love with golf soon after she did have the opportunity to play the game for real, outside.

She won her fair share of cups in club tournaments and revelled in playing Portstewart's Strand course until a number of her younger companions decided to call it a day.

"The Strand is quite hilly and some people couldn't handle that, though I would have been game to go on," says Joyce who has regular physiotherapy sessions to keep her in shape.

"But the Riverside course is challenging too. For starters, there's a river that you have to cross twice. And there are two ditches and a 14ft deep lake you want to avoid, not to mention the bunkers."

She tries to play not once but twice a week and the golfing bug hasn't worn off.

"I still enjoy my golf immensely. And I was a keen spectator at the Irish Open at Portstewart earlier this year," she says. "It was a great occasion and a wonderful boost for the club and for the whole town as well."

Joyce insists that she does take time to put her feet up - occasionally.

"I do like to relax. And I do take time to myself. I enjoy home-baking and if it's too wet for golf, my friends tend to come to my house to sample what I've made," says Joyce, who has recovered after a heart attack 10 years ago.

Joyce, who has also had a hip replacement operation, was born and raised in Belfast but moved to the north coast after her husband Tom got a job in Portstewart, which was one of the couple's favourite places in Northern Ireland.

Joyce, who had worked for the Young Farmers' Clubs movement in Belfast, initially didn't have the easiest of times in her new north coast surroundings.

She and a friend started a family planning clinic in Coleraine and after her retirement at the age of 65, Joyce went on to become a voluntary counsellor with the Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association (UPAA).

Anti-abortion activists distributed leaflets denouncing Joyce, who was also subjected to protests at her home.

However, after an arson attack on the UPAA headquarters in Belfast in 1999, the organisation took the decision to close down.

"A lot of the people I worked with told me that it was the saddest day of their lives," says Joyce, who has three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

One of Joyce's daughters has inherited her mother's passion for sport but as a rower, not a golfer.

Accountant Gillian Carolan, who lives in Galway, has won gold medals as a rower and a coach and she and her husband Sean have just returned from the World Rowing Regatta at Lake Bled in Slovenia.

Joyce's husband Tom, who died four years ago, was a golfer but at the outset he wasn't quite as keen on the game as his wife.

"He only took it up after my first playing partner was sometimes unavailable. Tom said he would walk round the course with me and then he eventually got hooked on golf too," says Joyce.

If she's playing the game, Joyce likes to watch golf on the television and she's also a tennis and rugby fan.

But ask her to name her all-time golfing heroes and she hesitates.

"I don't really know because all the golfers keep changing so much over the last few years," she says.

So are there golfers that she doesn't like? Joyce is too much of a diplomat to answer that one.

Belfast Telegraph

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