This is what golf does to people.
In a ruthlessly competitive age where talent identification and recruitment plays an important role for sports looking to secure champions of the future, golf typically is a sport that channels its best youngsters into junior programs.
From there, elite amateurs are made ready for a professional career.
Popular Kiwi golfer, Ryan Fox, is not one of those ‘pathway’ guys. An exception to the rule, Fox came to serious golf at the relatively late age of 21, after mid-way through a Psychology degree at University, realising that he was good enough to transition from having fun with his mates, and playing rugby, cricket and tennis, to trying out tournament golf.
“I discovered that I loved it”, explained a relaxed Fox, after just having reacquainted himself with Melbourne’s Metropolitan Golf Club, ahead of the recent Handa World Cup of Golf.
And so began the building of a career that has seen Fox consolidate himself in the world’s top 100 players, with all signs pointing to a continued climb into the higher echelons.
Not that any of that is as easy as what it might sound; “After two years on the Euro Challenge Tour I graduated to the main tour”, Fox explains, “then it took another six months or so, only after I had decent results in France, Ireland and Scotland, before I realised that I felt comfortable among the guys and actually belonged on the tour.”
The guys? “It can feel a wee bit strange on the putting green, when you see guys like Rory, Sergio, Henrik and so on, guys that you’ve looked up to, but gradually it all becomes more normal and then you start to feel comfortable.”
2017 saw Fox finish 34th on the European Order of Merit, before improving in 2018 to finish 22nd. “I basically achieved all my goals, except for winning”, he says, a little ruefully (Fox was cruelly denied at the Irish Open by Scotland’s Russell Knox holing two consecutive 35-foot putts to snatch victory from him).
“I was much more consistent, with more top-30, top-25 finishes. And I played in three of the majors, making the cut in all of them.”
So for 2019, what are the goals? “My objective is to turn a few of those 20ths into top-tens, and from there, to contend more often on the final afternoon.”
If that sounds like an invitation to subject himself to high levels of pressure, Fox makes an important distinction. “I find that the pressure of being in contention, trying to win a tournament, is easier than trying to make a cut. I have a few mates on tour who have come under stress to keep their card – that’s real pressure, playing for your livelihood.”
Fox explains further, “Being in contention to win, that’s a different type of pressure, that’s actually where you want to be. Rather than the general pressure of ‘I have to play well and make the cut’, I find it helps you focus more specifically on executing specific shots. Pick a target, pick a club, play your shot and not worry about where the ball might go. Those are the times you learn to trust the process and not to focus on the outcome.”
Our discussion turns to what it is like to be a prominent sportsperson in New Zealand – a small, often insular environment, where there can often be undue expectations placed on people by the media and public, to deliver on behalf of the nation.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate”, says Fox, in typically unflappable style. “The All Blacks take up so much coverage it helps people like me fly under the radar a bit. And, mostly, the coverage tends to be positive. Lydia (Ko), Danny (Lee), myself and others, we’re in a global sport, so we appreciate that New Zealanders want to see us competing around the world and doing well.”
“The only thing that frustrates me with some of the media coverage of golf, is that there’s so much focus on prize-money. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate all of the prize-money, of course I do, and I respect everything that comes together to make that up, but apart from, say the guys trying to keep a card, we’re not playing to make a cheque, we’re just trying to play the best we can.”
To this layman’s eye, Fox looks to have a straightforward, bomb-proof swing. How does he see it? “I’ve been working with (coach) Marcus Wheelhouse for six years now, and we’ve done a lot of work to tidy my swing up, but yes, it’s still fairly natural and uncomplicated. We don’t worry too much about how it looks, it’s more about consistently getting into the right position to get the ball to go where we want.”
And ‘go’ it does, with Fox consistently at or near the top of driving distance rankings. “I’ve never had a problem, whether in golf, cricket or tennis, with trying to hit the ball hard”, he laughs.
So where will the improvement come from, to lift Fox up into the truly elite group? “For me, it’s my short game. It’s not bad, but to get up and down or hole one more putt a tournament, over the course of a year, that’s enough to make a massive difference.”
Fox also hints at better understanding and execution of the coaching process. “It’s tough for us because Marcus is based in New Zealand. Most weeks we’d be exchanging videos, but it’s always better when he’s there on the range with me, and it’s showed in the times that he has travelled over, I’ve generally played pretty well for the next couple of weeks after that.”
So what about life on the tour itself? With both the PGA Tour and European Tour now essentially 12-month propositions, how hard is it to balance the need to take regular breaks from the game against the fear of ‘missing the bus’ and sliding down the rankings?
“It’s very difficult. In 2017 I played too much and fell away at the end of the year. Last year I played less, and that seemed to work better, but ironically I fell away again at the end of the year, this time due to illness (a nasty sinus infection picked up in China).”
“The timing was terrible, I had events in China, Turkey, South Africa, Dubai and Australia (twice) in successive weeks. There was a long flight every Sunday night, and no chance of taking a day or two off after I arrived. This is some of the tougher side of the job that maybe some of the fans don’t see.”
As always, Fox is level headed about accepting both the good and bad sides of life as a touring pro; “It’s not as glamorous as it’s made out to be, but sure, it’s a good life. Every now and then we stay at some great places and have some great experiences, like at Sun City for example, where we got the opportunity to go on safari. But mostly it’s golf, airport, courtesy car and hotel.”
“Golf is a game that humbles you more than most. Everyone, at various times, goes through tough times, and not all of the guys have a support network to fall back on, to help them through those times. I know of plenty of examples where the situation has got to guys, and you can easily end up feeling alone and helpless. So, I’ve learned never to take anything for granted.”
Fox counts himself fortunate in having a number of (mostly) Australian and South African friends on tour – “it’s good to be able to talk cricket and rugby and understand the same things” – as well as having the support of his fiancée on tour – “she’s an expert at finding nice restaurants and sights to see.”
While Fox obviously loves the game, and the opportunity to compete at the highest level, what is clear is that perspective and a healthy outlook on life won’t allow him to be defined solely by golf. “I think what I’ll remember at the end of my career won’t so much be the golf tournaments, but the experiences outside of golf, and some of the people I meet.”
Don’t be surprised if some of those experiences involve fishing and boating, Fox relishing the opportunity to reacquaint himself over the Xmas break with two of his favourite pastimes outside of golf. That six-week long break has now come to an end, with Fox teeing it up this weekend in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, an event used my many of the leading tour players to kick-start their year.
As any club player or weekend hacker knows, what the golf gods giveth, the golf gods can just as quickly take away. But, at just 32 years of age next week, almost certainly, Fox remains a golfer in the ascendancy.
Look for a big 2019 from the popular, big-hitting Kiwi.