In this week’s Player Blog, Ryan Fox writes about his sporting life, emulating the successes of his famous family, long driving competitions with Dustin Johnson and beating talent with hard work.
Growing up I always wanted to be a professional sportsman.
One of my first ever memories that I can remember was my grandad - my mum's dad - bowling to me in the backyard. His name was Merv Wallace. He played cricket for New Zealand in the '30s, '40s and 50's and even captained New Zealand for a test match. I have vivid memories from when I was three or four of him bowling to me in the garden and teaching me how to pick the different type of spin deliveries - the wrong-un, the leg spinner, the off spinner. He wasn't a bowler, he was a batter, but he was really keen to teach me the art of watching the ball out of the bowler's hand. So, I suppose, right from the start, I was getting to grips with some hand-eye co-ordination.
I can also remember whacking little plastic golf balls around the backyard with some kid's clubs at the same sort of age, and there are plenty of pictures floating around of me holding a rugby ball when I was three years old, but to be honest, cricket was my first real sporting love. You can start playing cricket a lot younger than other sports so most of my early memories revolve around playing cricket.
Being around international sportsmen has always been fairly normal to me. My dad isn’t Grant Fox, the All Black, he’s just dad to me, and my granddad was always my granddad, regardless of everything they had done in their sporting careers. For me, I don’t remember too much of dad playing rugby because I was six when he retired. But I remember one game when he was playing and all the post-game stuff – going into the changing room and being surrounded by these giant guys or kicking a ball around on the field like you could do back in the day.
Now that I’m a bit older I can appreciate my father’s achievements. I’ve watched some of the old games back over the years and it’s a very cool thing to be a part of. I wish I had more memories of his glory days but I was just a bit too young to be right in the mix.
Sport was everything growing up. I played cricket for club and school for about 15 years from age and rugby the whole way through school as well. I guess I didn’t have much choice with rugby! I played fly-half and I got targeted a bit through school as you can imagine. I had a few too many forwards running at me, trying to smash me hard but rugby is a physical game so you expect that anyway.
My dad basically coached me the whole way through. Pretty much every team I was ever a part of growing up, he was involved in some capacity which was cool. Dad was assistant coach at Auckland Blues for a few years and still even then was helping out the school team and club teams I played in. That was pretty special and I certainly learned a lot from him despite perhaps not quite getting the rugby genes.
In terms of the cricket side of things, my theory is that I missed my calling. I was always very good at getting to 30 very quickly then getting myself out in some way. At that time, T20 wasn’t around and that’s a shame because I think it would’ve suited me quite nicely. Much like my golf, I liked to hit the ball hard, I wasn’t too much of a fan of running between the wickets and figured boundaries were the easier option. Trying to bat for 30, 40, 50 overs as a 15 year old was tough.
I played first level cricket and then played for Auckland as an under 14 and under 15 and played a year of men’s cricket after leaving school. I went to university to start my law degree and it was around that time I discovered I had fallen out of love with cricket. I had always figured it was going to be my game. I had already stopped playing rugby at this point having suffered a few too many concussions and although even now I can happily sit down and watch an entire five-day cricket test match, I realised at that point I had had enough of standing around in the field all day myself.
In the end it was golf that called out to me the most. I didn’t play any competitive golf until after I left school. It was around halfway through my first year at university, so around 18, and I played off a handicap of two. But at that point it was an ugly two that was fairly decent on my home course but not really anywhere else. So I got my first coach, entered a few tournaments and absolutely loved it. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a golfer.
My parents were always very supportive of me and the choices I made. They just wanted me to work hard enough to try to achieve the goals I had. My dad caddied for me a lot in the early years, pretty much exclusively throughout my two years of amateur golf and quite a bit in my first couple of years as a pro, too. Even though the sports are very different, obviously, I always saw a lot of similarities between golf and goal kicking in rugby – the pre-shot routine, the swing, the strike, the trajectory, the spin, the accuracy, the consistency – and I certainly learned a lot from him in that respect.
We may have had our few little blow-ups on the course like most fathers and sons do but we had a lot of fun travelling around New Zealand and then a little bit of the world together as both family and colleagues.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever had from my dad was to be the best at whatever you choose to do. He has always said, “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.” I guess meaning, if you work as hard as you can at something and don’t succeed, you can still walk away with your head held high. He even says that about his own career: he wasn’t the most talented rugby player but he worked his butt off. Hopefully I’ve inherited some of that work ethic from him.
Golf is a game in which doubt can sometimes get the better of you. Especially when things aren’t going well. I’m sure every guy out here, even the best of the best, have had times of doubt and I’m no different, I’ve definitely had patches. There were two times when I was really, really struggling. During my second year as a pro playing in Australia in 2013, I had got to a point when I was playing poorly; I’d changed coach and was just suffering with everything. I missed the cut at the Australian PGA and I remember talking to mum and dad and saying: “I’m done.” There were only two events left of the year, I didn’t have enough money to keep my card and at that point I didn’t really care if I did or not. And it was dad who helped me turn a corner. He came over to caddie in the Australian Masters at Royal Melbourne and asked me at the start of the week: “Why do you play golf?” I said: “It’s supposed to be fun.” So we decided that was our goal for the week – to go out with zero expectations and try to enjoy it. If it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. I ended up finishing fifth that week and made enough to keep my card. That was the catalyst for the following year which turned out to be best of my career up to that point.
The other low point was in 2015 when I was on the Challenge Tour and missed my card for the European Tour by one place. That was tough. I was comfortably inside with two events to go and played poorly while the other guys around me played very well to get their cards. That hurt and probably took me around six months to get over that. But as with a lot of things in life, there are swings and roundabouts. Having that extra year on the Challenge Tour probably helped me a lot, I played well the whole year out there and ended up getting a much better card – finishing fourth – than I would have done finishing 15 the year earlier. I’ve been able to play in almost everything this year.
He always said: 'Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard.'
Going from struggling on the Australian Tour to the top European Tour events in two years has been a dream. Getting to this point is the biggest success of my professional life so far. The goal growing up was always to play at the top level of any sport. I still pinch myself at times. This year has been awesome. It took me a few months to feel comfortable, playing in big events week-in, week-out compared to one or two a year is a big change. I’m definitely a golf nerd and if I’m being honest it took me a while to adjust to playing with the guys I’d idolised growing up, the guys I’d watched on TV all the time.
But the three-week run I had with top ten finishes in France, Ireland and Scotland was cool and actually really helped my mentality. At that point I really began to realise that I deserved to be out here and could compete with these guys. Off the back of those weeks I managed to get into The Open, got into the US PGA through World Ranking and then through the Race to Dubai got into the final WGC of the year in Shanghai. It all feels a bit of a blur.
The ultimate pinch-me moment was when I was paired with Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson in my first event of the year. There was a buzz and excitement when I saw that text on the Friday night. Dustin shot 64 that day around there as if it was nothing. I played okay and shot three under but felt like I was playing a different game. I definitely felt like I was watching the World Number One. He’s probably the most impressive guy I’ve played with so far. We are both long hitters and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I stacked up against him in that sense. It was close. The difference, though, is that I can be fairly erratic whereas he hit it long and straight. It was impressive.
My experience in other sports definitely helped me forge the long hitting. In rugby, I could always kick the ball a long way; cricket, I always found it preferable to hit fours and sixes; tennis, I was always trying to hit a winner or smash a serve. I’ve always taken the same approach to golf. The course I grew up on helped that in that was short and tight but you could blow your drive out onto one of the other fairways. I like to think I’ve reined it in a little over the years…
I’ve probably exceeded the goals I set for this year but there’s always the next step. I’d like to push towards the top 20 in the Race to Dubai. That gets you entry into a few great events like the WGC in Mexico, The Open at Carnoustie. The other big goal, of course, is to get that first European Tour win. Everyone out here wants to win every week and I’m no different. But it’s really hard. I’d love to get over the line as soon as possible, whether that’s in one of these Rolex Series events or next year.
I might not be an All Black but I feel very lucky to have added to my family’s legacy a little bit. Last year I played the Olympics – something no one else in my family had done – and it brought me a lot of pride to become the third generation to represent New Zealand in three different sports. I have a way to go to catch up, but I’m only just beginning…