Pursuing a career in professional sports is difficult. Following in your family’s footsteps is hard.
Now imagine doing both at the same time.
For Ryan Fox, carrying on the legacy of two generations of New Zealand sports greats was a daily reality long before he became one of the world’s best golfers.
First, there was Merv Wallace. To Fox, he was a grandfather, but to the rest of the country, he was a renowned former national cricketer and later coach.
Although a prolific batting career in Auckland was interrupted at international level by the Second World War, with Wallace playing only 13 Test matches, his legacy in the sport was still remarkable. When he died aged 91 in 2008, an obituary described him as “one of the best batsmen New Zealand has ever produced”.
Next 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 fly-half played 56 times for the All Blacks, building a reputation as one of the game’s best goal-kickers before retiring as its leading points-scorer of the country.
Both Wallace and Fox were honored individually during Queen Elizabeth’s reign for services to their sports.
If that wasn’t enough of a family sporting heritage, Wallace’s brother and son George and Gregory played first-class cricket in Auckland.
Now, there’s Grant’s son, Ryan. It’s a tough family act to follow, but with a world ranking of No. 26 and three DP World Tour wins to his name, the 35-year-old is coping very well.
“It’s really 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 are too many other families who can say that.
“I’m sure there are families that have done it with the same sport, but different sports are pretty cool.”
Growing up, cricket and rugby seemed like natural choices for Fox, and he played both well into his school days.
He didn’t even pick up a club until he was 10. In family fashion, it was playing a round in Auckland amongst sporting royalty; father Grant and cricket trio Ian Botham, Martin Crowe and Mark Nicholas. Soon after, Wallace created his grandson his first wooden poles, and Fox was hooked.
Weekends and school holidays were consumed by golf, and when the teenager skipped parties to go racing, he realized he was in the deep end.
When he graduated with a law degree from the University of Auckland, golf quickly overtook studies, as did other sports.
Men’s cricket did not offer the same enjoyment, and as for rugby, “too many hits”.
“Looking back, golf was the sport I enjoyed the most,” Fox said.
“I had always wanted to be a professional athlete, it just took a while to figure out what sport it would be.”
Not playing his first tournament until he was 18, Fox arrived in the afternoon, but he made up for lost time in emphatic fashion. Two years later he was part of the national team and, aged 24, won the New Zealand Stroke Play in 2011, with none other than his father as caddy. Within a year, he had turned pro.
Having started on the PGA Tour of Australasia and the Challenge Tour, Fox was a regular face on the European Tour in 2019, floating around the world. 100 marks However, after his first Tour win at the World Super 6 Perth in February, that ranking had steadily fallen to no. 211 in early 2022.
The travel implications of New Zealand’s tight 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 with all the travel restrictions and not knowing if I could get home to see them [family]I would have left home not knowing when I would 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 that Fox has since bounced back is, even in its own words, an understatement.
Having sealed a dominant five-stroke victory at the Ras Al Khaimah Classic in February, he notched seven top-10 finishes before claiming more silverware at the famous Alfred Dunhill Links Championship earlier this month.
His earnings of approximately €2,621,000 ($2,627,000) in 22 European Tour events this season mark a nearly double increase over the previous three campaigns.
Only Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick sit above him in the European Tour rankings and world no. At 26, he is the only New Zealand golfer in the top 250. All in all, Fox believes he is playing comfortably the best golf of his career.
“When you take things off the golf course, it’s definitely easier to play well and I think that’s been the biggest thing this year,” he said.
“I’ve had patches where I’ve competed in tournaments and felt like I’ve competed with the best players in the world, but it’s certainly not been consistent.
“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable out there, a lot more comfortable in the fight, and I’ve felt week in and week out that the game of golf is never that far away, so it’s definitely been a nice place to be.”
Given his form, some eyebrows were raised when Fox did not receive a Presidents Cup call-up from international team captain Trevor Immelman ahead of September’s tournament.
The New Zealander has since spoken of his disappointment at missing out, although he is determined to use the injury as motivation to achieve other goals, most notably punching his ticket to the Augusta Masters in April.
“I set a goal to get into the top 50, but the most important thing would be to stay in the top 50 by the end of the year and get the invitation to the Masters next year. Another win for sure would help achieve that,” he said.
“Obviously there are a lot of good players and there’s still a lot of golf to come, but hopefully this year’s good form will continue into that.”