DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | In one of the most remarkable seasons scripted on either side of the Atlantic – or the Pacific, if you wish – New Zealand’s Ryan Fox is the only player on the Official World Golf Ranking in 2022 to rise from outside the top 200 to inside the top 25.
One might wonder what’s so jaw-droppingly good about that stat. It’s rare, but Tiger Woods had climbed from No. 656 to 13th in 2018, and Xander Schauffele improved from No. 299 to 25th the year before.
Here is the difference. Woods and Schauffele played on the PGA Tour and were part of all of the majors, WGCs and invitational events – all loaded with OWGR points. Fox, on the other hand, accumulated almost all of his points through its much poorer cousin, the DP World Tour. By the time he won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on Oct. 2, or finished second six weeks later at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the points had dried up further, too, because of the restructured OWGR system.
If that doesn’t impress you, how about this one: On the DP World Tour in 2022, Ryan Fox improved in all 13 major stat categories. Starting from shots gained off the tee, where the long-hitting Kiwi was 50th in 2021 and 40th this year, to shots gained putting, where he jumped massively from being 129th at minus-0.13, to 44th at plus-0.27, there is not one area of the game where he hasn’t made a significant improvement.
Even world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who never played in the same group with Fox before they were paired for the first round of the DP World Tour Championship here on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates, was impressed by his ascent.
“He’s had an amazing season,” said McIlroy, who won the tour’s season-long Race to Dubai title with a fourth-place finish Sunday with the DP World Tour Championship. “I saw he went from 217th in the world up to 23rd (his best ranking this year). That’s an amazing climb. You have to play great golf and you have to play consistently great golf over a decent period of time to get that high. And he’s done that playing golf tournaments that don't necessarily provide as high of world-ranking points as some others, so I think he’s done a phenomenal job.”
Becoming the European tour’s No. 1 – he would have been the first New Zealand player to do so – would have completed his Cinderella story. But even though he fell slightly short with his 19th-place finish here, which left him at No. 2 in the season standings, Fox wasn’t complaining.
“It’s been surreal,” Fox said. “If you’d have said this at the start of the year, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But it’s been an amazing season, and I’m really proud of what I’ve done this year.”
In fact, Fox hardly ever complains.
He did not complain when his back started acting up at a pivotal moment of the season. He did not complain when his golf bag was lost by an airline just after the Open Championship. And he certainly did not whine at the lowest point of his year, when International captain Trevor Immelman ignored his solid credentials and picked three players ranked outside of Fox for the Presidents Cup matches.
Ian Keenan, Fox’s long-time manager with Wasserman, feels the origin of his client’s success story started with how painful the COVID-19 pandemic was for him and his family.
“New Zealand probably had the strictest protocols during the pandemic, and it was really difficult for Foxy, who is a devoted family man,” Keenan said. “He had his first child towards the end of 2020, and to mix his playing schedule with trips back home was very difficult.”
As if on cue, the live TV coverage of the DP World Tour Championship showed Fox arriving for his second round at the Jumeirah clubhouse with his 23-month-old daughter, Isabel, and wife, Anneke.
“We thought it was a good time to have a baby, but it turned out to be very tough on us,” Fox said. “The last couple of years have been very brutal. We have no support overseas. So, we opted for quarantine (14 days each time) four times in New Zealand over the last two years. Things were so bad, we had to go on a lottery to get a quarantine spot last year.
“It’s tough mentally when you are not sure whether you can head back home after a tournament, whether you will be able to see your wife and child for the next two to three months.”
Two things happened once the borders started opening: Fox felt an elevated sense of freedom, and a decision made in the middle of the pandemic started bearing fruit.
“During the pandemic, I started working with Jamie Gough,” Fox said of the South Africa-based swing coach. “I still have Marcus (Wheelhouse) as my coach, but he was stuck in New Zealand. Jamie is someone who travels a lot with the tour.
“The biggest thing with Jamie is having eyes on my game every week. I sort of used to go in waves a little bit. I’d find some form when Marcus came up and then tried to find something myself when he left, which I wasn’t very good at. Bringing Jamie made a massive difference. It never feels like I get too far off center line now. He kind of does regular maintenance of my swing.”
One of the biggest strengths Fox has is the ability not to over-think his swing. He is one of the quickest players in the world, repeatedly clocking about 10 seconds to hit his shots.
“I am just trying to make a very complicated game, very simple for him,” Gough said. “He wants maybe one or two things that he can feel and work on. All I’ve really done with him is a few little tweaks and making sure that the engine is tuned nicely all the time. There are a few small improvements I have made along with his physio, Bas Van der Steur, to make it easier on his back. He’s a very feel-oriented player. If someone like him is struggling, and he is out on tour by himself, it's very easy to go to the range and try and change a few things. All of a sudden, you get yourself in a little bit of a muddle sometimes.”
A big talking point with Fox is the outstanding sporting genes he has inherited. He is the son of the legendary All Blacks rugby star Grant Fox, and grandson of former New Zealand cricket captain Merv Wallace.
“I am nothing like my father,” Fox said. “He is heavily into analysis, and I don’t like to think about my swing. I think the only thing I have got from him and my grandfather, and the New Zealand rugby team, is that I love competition. I just hate to lose.”
How good is that competitive spirit? Two stories from this year exemplify it.
After his victory in the Ras al Khaimah Classic in February in the UAE, Fox and his friends were celebrating deep into the night when they decided to play the par-5 18th hole of the flood-lit Al Hamra course. Despite having had his fair share of beer and wine, Fox won the hole against all others after draining a 70-feet eagle putt.
Later, at the Dunhill Links Championship, an emotional week for Fox was made even more difficult because he had lost his golf clubs and was reunited with them only on Thursday of the tournament. He’d always play the pro-am of the championship with his Australian friend Shane Warne, one of the greatest bowlers in cricket.
A passionate golfer, Warne died in March this year at age 52. Everything at the tournament would remind Fox of his dear friend, but he somehow knuckled down and won the tournament ahead of a quality field, which included McIlroy.
"All of a sudden, you look at next year’s schedule and it looks like we are playing all the majors and the top-50 events in the States. It’s exciting, but it’s also nice to know that I have worked hard and earned the right to be in each one of those fields.”
However, the laidback Fox hides that competitiveness well. He is one of the most-liked players on the DP World Tour. You’d never hear any player or staff saying anything negative about him.
“What I love about him is that he is just a normal bloke from New Zealand who happens to be good at golf,” said Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion. “I think I am just a normal lad from Ireland. We have become very good friends.”
India’s Shubhankar Sharma was involved in a head-to-head duel with Fox a couple of weeks ago at the Nedbank Challenge. On the 17th hole on Sunday, Sharma faced a par putt from about 8 feet, exactly the same line as a longer birdie putt from the New Zealander.
“His putt turned a bit left, and almost on the same line, mine turned right,” Sharma said. “As we were walking to the 18th, and he was right there competing for the top prize with Tommy (Fleetwood, the eventual winner), he came up to me and said, ‘Sorry, Shubhi. I confused you with that putt.’ It’s just the kind of person Foxy is: always nice to others, always thinking of others. He is so humble and a genuinely amazing human being.”
For Fox, the reward for his outstanding year is a first-ever trip to Augusta National Golf Club in April for the Masters, and a vastly different playing schedule with several appearances in the U.S.
“It’s probably not something I expected at the start of the year,” Fox said. “The goal after the last couple of years was just to make sure I had a job for next year. Even through the middle of the year, when I was just inside the top 50, and the big goal was to try to find my way basically into my first Masters by making sure I was still there at the end of the year. And then, all of a sudden, you look at next year’s schedule and it looks like we are playing all the majors and the top-50 events in the States.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also nice to know that I have worked hard and earned the right to be in each one of those fields. I have played my way to each start. I am incredibly proud of that.”
Top: Affable New Zealander Ryan Fox is well-liked by the media and his fellow DP World Tour players.