IS THIS THE YEAR OF THE FOX?

Ryan Fox is mo­ti­vated and still want­ing to achieve more in his golf ca­reer.

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - CONTENTS FEATURES - WORDS MATT RICHENS

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.

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