Pursuing a career in professional sports is hard. Following in your family’s footsteps is hard.
Now imagine doing both at the same time.
For Ryan Fox, shouldering the legacy of two generations of New Zealand sporting greats was a daily reality long before he rose to become one of the world’s best golfers.
First, there was Merv Wallace. To Fox, he was grandad, but to the rest of the country, he was a renowned former national team cricketer and later, coach.
Though a prolific batting career in Auckland was disrupted at international level by the World War II, with Wallace playing only 13 Test matches, his legacy in the sport was still notable. When he died aged 91 in 2008, one obituary described him as “one of the best batsmen New Zealand has ever produced.”
Then came Wallace’s son-in-law Grant Fox, a name that needs no introduction to anyone familiar with rugby.
Winner of the inaugural World Cup in 1987, the legendary flyhalf played 56 times for the All Blacks, carving a reputation as one of the greatest goal-kickers in the game before retiring as the country’s all-time leading test points scorer.
Both Wallace and Fox were individually honored during Queen Elizabeth’s reign for services to their sports.
If that wasn’t enough family sporting heritage, Wallace’s brother and son – George and Gregory – both played first-class cricket for Auckland.
Now, there is Grant’s son, Ryan. It’s a tough family act to follow, but with a world No.26 rank and three DP World Tour wins to his name, the 35-year-old is fronting up quite nicely.
“It’s pretty cool to be the third generation of my family to represent New Zealand,” Fox told CNN’s The Jazzy Golfer. “I don’t think there’d be too many other families that could say that.
“I’m sure there’s families that have done it over the same sport, but different sports is quite cool.”
Growing up, cricket and rugby seemed natural choices to Fox, and he played both well into his school years.
He didn’t even up pick up a club until he was 10-years-old. In true family fashion, it was to play a round in Auckland among sporting royalty; dad Grant plus cricketing trio Ian Botham, Martin Crowe, and Mark Nicholas. Soon after, Wallace crafted his grandson his first clubs from wood, and Fox was hooked.
Weekends and school holidays would be consumed by golf, and when the teenager was passing up on parties to hit the fairways, he realized he was in deep.
By the time he was at Auckland University starting a law degree, golf was rapidly overtaking studies, as well as other sports.
Men’s cricket didn’t offer the same enjoyment, and as for rugby, “too many concussions.”
“Looking back on it, golf was the sport I enjoyed the most,” Fox said.
“I’d always wanted to be a professional sportsman, it just took a fair while to figure out what sport it was going to be.”
Not playing his first tournament until 18, Fox was a late bloomer, but made up for lost time emphatically. Two years later he made the national squad, and as a 24-year-old in 2011 he clinched the New Zealand Stroke Play, with none other than Dad as his caddy. Within a year, he had turned professional.
Having started on the PGA Tour of Australasia and the Challenge Tour, by 2019, Fox was a regular face on the European Tour, floating around the world No. 100 mark. Yet after his maiden Tour win at the World Super 6 Perth in February, that rank had slid steadily to No. 211 by early 2022.
The travel implications of New Zealand’s strict response to the pandemic saw Fox’s tournament appearances drop, with the birth of his daughter in December 2020 having a similar impact on his playing mindset.
“When you add that in with all the travel restrictions and not knowing whether I could get back home to see them [family], I’d have left home not knowing when I’d see them again,” Fox said.
“I think that makes it pretty hard to play good golf on the course with all that stuff in the back of your mind.”
To say Fox has rebounded since is, even in his own words, an understatement.
Having sealed a dominant five-stroke victory at the Ras Al Khaimah Classic in February, he secured seven top-10 finishes before claiming more silverware at the renowned Alfred Dunhill Links Championship earlier this month.
His roughly €2,621,000 ($2,627,000) earnings across 22 European Tour events this season mark an almost two-fold increase on purses gained across the previous three campaigns.
Only Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick sit above him on the European Tour rankings and at world No. 26, he is the sole New Zealand golfer inside the top 250. All in all, Fox believes he is comfortably playing the best golf of his career.
“When you take the off the golf course stuff out of it, it certainly makes it easier to play well and I think that’s been the biggest thing this year,” he said.
“I’ve had patches where I’ve contended in tournaments and felt like I’ve competed with the best players in the world, but it certainly hasn’t been consistent.
“I’ve felt a lot more comfortable out there, a lot more comfortable in contention and felt week in week out that the golf game’s never that far away which has certainly been a nice place to be.”
Given his form, a few eyebrows were raised when Fox didn’t receive a Presidents Cup call-up from International Team captain Trevor Immelman ahead of the September tournament.
The New Zealander has since spoken of his disappointment at missing out, though he is determined to use the hurt as motivation in pursuit of other goals – above all, stamping his ticket to The Masters at Augusta in April.
“I ticked off the goal to get in the top 50, but the big one would be to stay in the top 50 for the end of the year and get that Masters invite for next year. Another win would certainly help in securing that,” he said.
“Obviously there’s a lot of good players and still a lot of golf to come, but hopefully the good form from this year continues into that.”