Making 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, 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 a grandfather, but to the rest of the country, he was a famous national team cricketer and, later, a coach.
Although World War II interrupted Auckland’s prolific batting career at international level, with Wallace playing only 13 Test matches, his legacy was still prominent in the sport. When he died in 2008 aged 91, 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.
A debut World Cup winner in 1987, the legendary flyhalf played 56 times for the All Blacks, earning a reputation as one of the game’s greatest goalscorers before retiring as the country’s all-time leading Test points scorer.
Both Wallace and Fox were honored individually during Queen Elizabeth’s reign for their services to sport.
If the family’s sporting heritage wasn’t enough, Wallace’s brother and son – George and Gregory – both 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 26 and a DP World Tour win to his name, the 35-year-old is doing quite nicely.
“It’s great to be the third generation of my family representing New Zealand,” Fox told CNN’s The Jazzy Golfer. “I don’t think there would be too many other families who would say that.
“I’m sure there are families that have been around the same sport, but different sports are pretty cool.”
Growing up, cricket and rugby seemed natural choices for Fox, and he played both well during his school years.
He didn’t even pick up a club until he was 10 years old. In true family fashion, Auckland was to play a round amongst sporting royalty; father Grant and the cricket trio of Ian Botham, Martin Crowe and Mark Nicholas. Soon after, Wallace carved his grandson his first sticks out of wood, and Fox was hooked.
Weekends and school holidays would be consumed by golf, and when the teenager was skipping parties to hit the streets, he realized he was in deep.
When he graduated with a law degree from Auckland University, golf quickly overtook his studies, as well as other sports.
Men’s cricket did not offer the same enjoyment, and as for rugby, “too much commotion”.
“Looking back, golf was the sport I enjoyed the most,” Fox said.
“I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete, it took me a while to figure out what sport it would be.”
Not playing in his first tournament until he was 18, Fox was a late bloomer, but he made up for lost time remarkably. Two years later he made the national team, and in 2011 he won the New Zealand Stroke Play at the age of 24, with only his father as his caddy. After a year, he turned professional.
Beginning on the PGA Tour of Australasia and the Challenge Tour, by 2019 Fox was a regular face on the European Tour, floating around at world No. 100. However, after his first Tour win at the World Super 6 in Perth in February, that ranking dropped steadily to No. 211 at the start of 2022.
The travel fallout from New Zealand’s drastic response to the pandemic saw Fox’s tournament appearances decline, and the birth of his daughter in December 2020 had a similar effect on his playing mindset.
“When you add that in with all the travel restrictions and not knowing if I’m going to get home to see them [family]I would leave home not knowing when I would see them again,” said Fox.
“I think that makes it pretty hard to play good golf on the course with all that stuff in your head.”
To say that Fox has rebounded since then, even in his own words, is an understatement.
After sealing a dominant five-stroke victory at the Ras Al Khaimah Classic in February, he scored seven top-10s before claiming further silverware at the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links Championship earlier this month.
His earnings of around 2,621,000 euros ($2,627,000) in 22 European Tour events this season have almost doubled his purses over the previous three campaigns.
Only Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick are above him in the European Tour rankings and at world No.26, he is the only New Zealand golfer in the top 250. Overall, Fox believes he is comfortably playing 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 been in tournaments and felt like I’ve competed with the best players in the world, but it’s definitely not been consistent.
“I’ve felt a lot more comfortable out there, a lot more comfortable competing and week in and week out I’ve felt like the game of golf is never that far away, which has definitely been a nice place to be.”
Given his form, some eyebrows were raised when Fox didn’t 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 the away loss, although he is determined to use the pain as motivation for other goals, most notably sealing his ticket to the Augusta Masters in April.
“I set a goal to get in the top 50, but the biggest thing was to be in the top 50 by the end of the year and get that Masters invite for next year. Another win would certainly help ensure that,” he said.
“Obviously there are a lot of good players and a lot of golf to come, but hopefully this year’s good form will continue.”