IS THIS THE YEAR OF THE FOX?
Ryan Fox is motivated and still wanting to achieve more in his golf career.
Ryan Fox was quick to admit playing a round with golfing superstars Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler would have piqued his nerves and probably affected his score in the past. But just how far the Kiwi No 2 has come was highlighted by the fact Fox remained consistent, impressive and competitive on his first fifirst start as a full European Tour member last month in Abu Dhabi.
Fox was paired with Johnson and Fowler, both of whom have been in the top four in the world, have nearly 20 top-tier professional wins and – according to one source – nearly NZ$90m of career earnings, between them.
Johnson got hot in the third round, shooting the low number of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship – a flawless, 8-under 64. Fox didn't get as hot, but in front of big crowds he also went bogey free for a three-under 69, two shots better than Fowler.
The Kiwi powerhouse rounded off the tournament – and celebrated his 30th birthday – with a oneunder 71 to get to eight-under for the event and start his 2017 campaign in a tie for 19th. Solid.
And while it was only his first tournament of 2017, a T19 in good company is hardly a surprising start to the year for Fox, who moved to 126th in the world rankings after Abu Dhabi.
He finished 2016 on a high with two top 10s – again in fine company – at the Australian Open and the Australian PGA.
After a poor start to 2016, Fox was on a precipice of sorts. He had tried to earn a full European Tour card for this year from the limited number of starts on the full tour he'd been afforded, but had struggled.
He'd opted for the tougher tour and the tougher qualification process rather than the comparatively easier Challenge Tour route.
He played 10 Full European Tour events and while he was in the money five times, it was nickel and dime stuff and his best finish – before a ninth at the end of the year at the co-sanctioned Australian PGA – was T39 at the Olympics – another co-sanctioned event.
“I tried to play as much European Tour as I could and, looking back, I was probably still reeling from just missing out on my full-tour card at the back end of 2015,” he said.
Being so close to earning a full spot with Europe's big boys, he believed he was good enough to qualify from the limited amount of starts.
“But I chased it and probably pushed myself too hard. Mentally I battled. I put pressure on myself that I had to do it each week and I really paid the price with my performance.”
Then the full tour went to the biggest events and Fox's opportunities dried up. It proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Back on the Challenge Tour, his belief returned and so did his form. Fox won in Northern Ireland, finished runner-up at the Rolex Trophy and in Scotland and a pair of other top 10s helped him finish fourth on the secondary tour's Points Race – the Road to Oman – and pick up a full spot on the main tour.
With his full card sorted in November, Fox's new-held belief and the mental pressure drop helped him into some of the best form of his life over the Australasian summer where he finished ninth at the Aussie PGA and in a tie for fourth at the Australian Open, behind Jordan Spieth.
While Fox didn't better the former world No 1, competing with him, not being overawed by him and sharing the same tees and greens helped Fox come to one of the most important realisations of a professional career now entering its fifth year. He belonged.
In the final months of 2016, Fox had been paired with four top 10 players; Spieth, Adam Scott, Alex Noren and Hideki Matsuyama.
“At the beginning of last year I struggled a bit being around guys like Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson – these were guys I'd grown up watching on TV and now I was sharing a putting green with them. That took a bit of getting used to. Being a fan of them, you kind of have to get over it. Once you see they're just normal guys, they still hit bad shots, they still get angry with themselves. And once you realise that and get more comfortable around them, you realise you've earned the right to be there playing alongside them. It's a process; every level you go up you feel a bit uncomfortable and you can't expect to perform straight away, but that's all part of it. Very few guys race straight to the top and feel comfortable doing it, maybe guys that are freaks like Tiger or Rory. Once you realise that, it feels a bit more comfortable.”
And it's that comfort – and hard work – that will see him cement his place on the European Tour.
His goals, like his game, are pretty simply.
He wants to retain his card by winning or via the money list – the top 110 retain their playing rights.
“I'd really like to win out there,” he told New Zealand Golf Magazine before heading to Abu Dhabi. I'm not putting myself under too much pressure to do that, but it's definitely a goal of mine for this year and to make it inside the top 100 in the world.
“I realise that's not going to be easy either, the higher up you get the tougher it is to keep moving up, but I do have some opportunities and it's nice to have those chances to play in some bigger events this year.”
Fox may come across as a ‘grip-itand-rip-it' kind of guy, but he's put plenty of thought into 2017 too. He's got a clever schedule where he's not overdoing it, but there's room for more events at the end of the year if he needs to chase money to retain his card and he's aiming not too make too many changes.
“You see guys that get to this level and fall into the trap of seeing how all the top guys do things and want to copy them, but I reckon you have to remember you got there by doing what works for you.”
So he'll retain the services of coach and friend Marcus Wheelhouse despite Wheelhouse remaining based in Auckland and only available for short stints either in New Zealand when Fox is back or in Europe.
“It's worked well for us both and I don't want to change that at all,” Fox said.
“When I'm back I work with him about 6-8 hours a week and we've sort of set it up so I can be a bit self sufficient which has worked and I reckon that's helped me long-term. So I don't want to be making too many changes, though I'm playing around with some new putters, but that's about it.”
While his flat-stick game isn't poor by any stretch, on the greens is still where the long ball hitter feels he can make the biggest gains.
“That's where the top guys, the Spieths etc, are just so much better. His short game is phenomenal and I think at this level, half a shot a round can make a very big difference to your pay cheque, whether you win or not or whether you retain your card.
The other pleasing thing listening to Fox is his “the job's not finished yet” attitude.
Many a sportsman or woman have made it to the elite level only to plateau or even fall away.
Fox appreciates while he's achieved a massive childhood goal of his to play on a major tour, there's still plenty of mountain left to climb.
“Honestly, I'm as motivated as ever,” he said excitedly.
“I've ticked this big goal off, but really it was always only a minimum goal for me and I certainly haven't achieved everything I want to in golf.
“It's great to get to where I've got and I'm glad I have, but I want to keep getting better, play in bigger tournaments and really just keep getting better. I've still got plenty to learn. Hopefully it's going to be a big year.”
Hopefully it's going to be the year of the Fox.
Ryan Fox tees off during the World Cup of Golf at Kingston Heath Golf Club Melbourne, Australia. Dustin Johnson (L) shakes hands with Ryan Fox and Rickie Fowler (R) during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Ryan Fox plays from a bunker during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.