The son of a famous All Black quit both rugby and cricket to concentrate on golf, but sometimes he just goes fishing.
The golfer Ryan Fox arrived at the Remuera Golf Club on Wednesday morning looking every bit the pro he is. He has been a professional player since 2012 and he knows about looking the part - which is to wear gear emblazoned with the names of the sponsors and to lug your clubs as props for the pictures. It was terribly nice of him to lug his clubs on his day off (he had flown in from playing in Korea the day before) because the entire caboodle weighs a hefty 15kg without the addition of what I thought was a pair of stuffed toys. They were actually covers for the heads of a couple of his clubs. One is a cute little fox. "Not too hard to work that one out," he said. The other is a gorilla. His nickname "with some of the boys" is The Silverback. "Because I'm built quite differently from most golfers, I guess. I'm quite solid, comparatively."
He is solid in other ways too. I wouldn't have been much surprised if he did carry around a couple of stuffed toys. That would have barely registered as eccentric, for professional golfers. There is much that I don't understand about golf but that wasn't much of a hindrance as he claims there is much that he doesn't understand about golf either. I thought he might be able to answer some of my questions about golf trivia, but I am none the wiser about why golf balls on ranges are yellow. Or why a birdie is called a birdie or a bogie is called a bogie. If I were a golfer I'd have googled these burning questions but he is rather concentrating on more important things - such as playing golf. He doesn't like distractions, except for necessary ones such as fishing which is what he does when he does need to stop thinking about golf. I said I thought fishing was, actually, pretty much like golf: You never know whether you'll go home with a good haul, or nothing. "Yeah, a little bit," he said. "But I guess fishing is not a competition. It's a challenge but it's not, you know, the be all and end all. If I go out and don't catch a fish, it's not the end of the world. It's still good being out there. I try to take that out on to the golf course. It's my job but a bad round of golf or a bad shot or a bad tournament is not the end of the world."
He has had to work at it not feeling like the end of the world at stages in his career. Who'd choose it? One day you're number one in the country as he was in February, overtaking Danny Lee. The next you're not, when Danny Lee overtakes you again. Such is golf. What a funny game it is.
It's about repetition and yet, he said, you almost never hit the same shot twice because of the lie of the land, the elevation, the distance, or who knows what else. "It always feels like every golf shot you hit is going to be the only time that you're going to hit that golf shot." You're on a course for hours and you walk 10km and you spend maybe five minutes of that time concentrating on hitting that tiny ball and the rest of the time you're concentrating on not concentrating. He said: "The best rounds of golf are the ones where you don't think until just before you get to the ball."
The rest of the time you talk to your playing partner: "About anything. Fishing. Sometimes golf, but not about how you're doing. About how other guys are doing and how your mates are going in other parts of the world or the All Blacks or cricket. Pretty much anything to take your mind off." So much of what he does for a job involves avoiding distraction while cultivating distraction, but only the right sort. He quite likes reading - spy thrillers and epic fantasies like the The Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones books - but he tends not to read. "If I get into a book, I almost can't do anything else until I finish it, to the detriment of other things. So I try not to start." This is all mind-bogglingly weird to a non-golfer.
It's a terrible game, isn't it? I said. He said: "It can be. At times. It's a game you can never truly beat. Oh, it can get on your nerves at times."
This might be why so many golfers are a bit strange. I have interviewed two other golfers: Sir Bob Charles, who likes things lined up just so and takes his own avocados to restaurants, and Michael Campbell, who suffered terribly from his nerves and who asked me if I'd ever had a soma aura reading. So in my admittedly limited experience he is a pretty normal sort of golfer. He said: "There's some fairly interesting, aah, habits with golfers. I've seen plenty of funny ones."
He doesn't have any funny habits - "Not that I know of" - because for one thing he assiduously avoids cultivating any. It helped that he studied psychology at uni and: "I kind of understand how it works and I honestly believe it's a very thin line between routine and superstition." So he will go the range for 20 minutes before every round he plays and chip for 10 minutes and putt for another 10 but "I'm not religious in terms of I have to be there 50 minutes exactly before I have to tee off".
He "sort of fell into" psychology after trying a year of law and not much liking it. He loved psychology: "Just finding out about the mind." He played rugby for King's College 1st XV and had a season playing premier cricket and pottered a bit but not very seriously with a golf club. Then he quit both rugby and cricket; he had no intention of becoming a professional golfer. His father is Grant Fox, the famous rugby player, and his maternal grandfather, Merv Wallace, played cricket for New Zealand. He thinks competitiveness is partly inherited and partly nurtured. His father never let him win any game, of anything, even when he was a small boy. "I can still say I've never beaten him in a game of tennis." He can clearly remember the day he finally beat him in a round of golf. "And I think deep down he might have been happy for me. But on top I don't think he was too happy!" Now when they play his dad "claims his shots" which means he can still sometimes beat his son. So he might be the most competitive Fox? "Oh, I wouldn't say more competitive," he said. Then: "He might be actually."
I had a psychological question for him: Does he think he consciously, or perhaps unconsciously, decided not to become a professional sportsman because of his father and grandfather? I thought the weight of expectation might have been as heavy as that golf bag but he says if there was expectation, from other people, he didn't feel it. He did think he'd play cricket but he "didn't enjoy it as much as I thought. I probably wasn't mentally strong enough. I tended to hit a few good shots then get myself out and get a bit angry with myself."
So he chose golf. As I say, he is completely normal - for a professional golfer.
He is still trying on being a golf pro for size. It doesn't yet come as naturally as carrying a golf bag. A large part of being a golf pro now is having a profile and turning up on your day off to talk to people like me. And he is not a showman - the ideal temperament for a golfer is confidence and competitiveness tempered with calm, he said. I thought it was (to paraphrase a quote from the golfer Gardner Dickinson that has proved handy for interviewing golfers previously): Selfishness, ego, indifference. He said: "Yeah. But from my experience there are a lot of great guys on tour." But are those great guys going to be number one in the world? "Umm. No." We were both thinking of the most famous golfer in the world. Had he given much thought about what happened to Tiger Woods? Too much money? Too much fame? "I don't know. Almost a bit of invincibility, I guess. That's what it looked like. But look at somebody like Rory McIlroy. I obviously don't know Rory but ... he doesn't seem that guy. He's obviously confident in his own ability and believes he's a great player which to be number one in the world or to be top in any profession, I think you need to have a little bit of that. But he still seems to be a nice guy off the course."
I had a hypothetical question for him: If it took being "that guy" to be number one in the world, would he choose to be that guy? "No. I don't believe you need to be arrogant and egotistical and self-centred if you want to succeed. You still need to believe and have some self-confidence but you can just keep that to yourself. You know, you don't need to show off."
Quite right. Lydia Ko's not a show-off. I thought I'd better come up with a serious golf question: Could he beat Lydia Ko? He considered this seriously (because he is very polite) and said: "If we played off the men's tees, I think I'd have a pretty good shot 'cos I hit it a bit further than Lydia. I certainly wouldn't want to ... because it would be embarrassing to be beaten!"
He knows a bit about not being a show-off because of his father who is not a show-off. He says the only negative side-effect of his father's fame was guys trying to pummel Foxy's boy on the rugby field. So if he does get really famous he'll likely be pretty much the same guy he is now. I said I'd interview him again in 10 years' time when he was really famous, if he wasn't too grand, and he looked aghast at the very idea. For now he flies long-haul flights in economy. He's 28 and lives, with his girlfriend of six-and-a-half years, in a house in Ellerslie owned by his parents. He's away from home at least 25 weeks a year. The aim is to get on one of the big money tours but to get there you have to win enough money playing the smaller tours and it costs him about $100,000 a year to play those tours. Almost all he earns goes back into his career. It sounds resolutely unglamorous, and it is. So he is really over the moon that he has just been given a flash shiny car, by Holden, who are sponsoring him. It is green, of course, and has his name on the side. That must be a bit strange, I said, meaning because of his reluctance to do anything that might be construed as showing off. "Oh no, it's great. I love it. And it's easy not to speed when your name's on the side of it."
Do give him a honk and a wave if you see him. He seems to be a nice, normal guy, on and off a golf course.