VIRGINIA WATER, ENGLAND | A week that started with a European Ryder Cup team bonding session in Rome ended with nine of them recording top-20 finishes in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Golf Club in Virginia Water, England.
And yet, when the dampness had settled, it was a golfer overlooked for last year’s Presidents Cup International team, New Zealand’s Ryan Fox, who emerged triumphant.
Fox, 36, made eight birdies in his final 13 holes to overcome an early triple bogey and complete a 5-under-par 67 that set an 18-under total of 270 that none could match. He drained a 6-footer for birdie on the final hole to finish a shot ahead of Englshmen Tyrrell Hatton and Aaron Rai.
If those numbers reveal the brilliance with which Fox pinched the win from under the noses of Europe’s finest, they do little to explain how deep a hole he had dug for himself early in the front nine.
Having started the final round in a share of fourth, three shots behind 54-hole leader Ludvig Åberg, Fox appeared to have blown all hopes of victory when clattering his tee shot at the par-4 third out of bounds and making a 5 with his second ball for a triple-bogey 7.
Lesser golfers might have wilted.
Fox, after all, was well aware that he had led during the final round of last week’s Irish Open whereupon his challenge fizzled out. He was also, he later conceded, all too familiar with his poor record around the West Course at Wentworth, with just one top-40 finish from six visits and a best of T20.
Resilience, however, is in the genes.
His father, Grant, was a star member of the legendary New Zealand rugby team that won the first World Cup in 1987. From his fly half position, he dictated open play, but time and time again he would need to lift himself from the mud after the opposition’s front row forwards had flattened him (before or after he’d released the ball).
The 2023 Rugby World Cup is taking place in France, and perhaps Fox Junior was inspired by the All Blacks victory on Friday night, their 50th in the tournament’s history.
“I certainly didn’t think I’d be talking to you after the third. But from then on, I didn’t miss a shot. I played great on the back nine. It was crazy, really."
Whatever it was, something lit the blue touch paper for him on Sunday. Seven of those eight birdies from the sixth hole onward were converted from inside 10 feet in a stellar display of approach play that refused to be disrupted by heavy rain around the turn or a 45-minute delay prompted by the threat of lightning midway through his back nine.
“I certainly didn’t think I’d be talking to you after the third,” he said with a smile to Sky Sports’ Tim Barter afterward. “But from then on, I didn’t miss a shot. I played great on the back nine. It was crazy, really. I returned from the break to hit an approach from the trees, knocked it to 9 feet and holed it.”
2022 was a breakthrough year on the DP World Tour for the Kiwi. He recorded seven top-three finishes, two of them wins, the second of them at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship shortly after he didn’t get the Presidents Cup invite and also in his first start at that event since his friend and long-term playing partner there, the cricketer Shane Warne, had died.
Fox bounced back then and has done so again, once more with a heavy heart. “We’ve been through a tough year as a family,” he said. “We lost my father-in-law earlier this year to a short fight with cancer, so to have my wife and children here this week is pretty special.”
The victory is his fourth on the DP World Tour and vaults him to third in this season’s Race to Dubai rankings.
The win might have eluded Luke Donald’s Ryder Cup dozen, but Europe’s captain hardly could have wished for a finer sendoff ahead of his bid to regain the trophy in Italy in two weeks. All 12 made the cut, and many played prominent roles in the narrative.
Nicolai Højgaard, Robert MacIntyre and Justin Rose made slow starts but fought hard to make the weekend. Matt Fitzpatrick and Shane Lowry tied for 18th, the latter briefly involved at the top of the leaderboard on defence of his title before chasing birdies cost him a quadruple bogey-9 at 17 on Sunday.
Sepp Straka shared 10th on his championship debut, Rory McIlroy carded 67-65 at the weekend to be tied seventh, and Tommy Fleetwood started Sunday in contention on his way to sixth place, equalling his best finish on a course he has never quite got to grips with (it was just a second top 10 in 12 starts).
Two weekend 67s earned Viktor Hovland fifth, Jon Rahm finished fourth and looked close to his best, and Tyrrell Hatton led throughout much of the final round, at one stage early in the back nine by four strokes. The heavy rain slowed him down, and he went out of bounds just before the hooter called a halt to play. Thereafter he was determined but always just off the pace on his way to sharing second with fellow Englishman Aaron Rai.
What of the young man of the moment, Ludvig Åberg?
Having wowed the galleries through 54 holes to edge two shots clear of the field, he found sand with his approach to the first and failed to save par, but worse was to come at Nos. 5 and 7 when he needed four blows to find the bottom of the hole from greenside rough, resulting in double bogeys.
Åberg is not the first pacesetter to struggle in the final round of this championship. In recent years, golfers of the quality of Trevor Immelman, Robert Karlsson, Thomas Bjørn and Chris Wood have spurned significant 54-hole advantages.
Wood explained how the West Course had tempted him, like a siren, onto the rocks, but he heeded the lesson and six years later lifted the trophy. The tall Englishman is not the only golfer to have tasted disappointment when contending in this championship before sealing the deal. In fact, it is more or less a prerequisite of all winners.
If Åberg is as good as many believe he is – McIlroy said after the Rome recce: “I was on the bandwagon before and I’m certainly at the front of it now” – the Swede’s final-round 76 for a share of 10th will be a vital learning experience rather than a lurch backward.
On a darker note, the tournament also witnessed another example of the sport’s relationship with the gambling industry having detrimental effects. Robert MacIntyre was heckled on the 17th hole of his second round by a spectator who had a wager riding on the Scot’s three-ball.
“There’s obviously gambling going on in the game nowadays, and some people ride a lot of money on it,” MacIntyre said. “Unfortunately, he lost today. I actually spoke to someone a few weeks ago – it might have been Jon Rahm – about the heckling on the PGA Tour. It’s all about gambling nowadays, and I said to [my caddie] Greg walking to the 18th tee: ‘Be switched on as this guy could throw anything at us here, so keep an eye on him.’”
One would hope that the authorities are also keeping an eye on the situation.