Comeback Kid

2012 U.S. Amateur

 

So far, Steven Fox’s golfing odyssey has taken him halfway around the United States before he even started high school, docked in Tennessee for seven years and taken a brief side trip to Colorado, where he won the United States Amateur last August.

How Fox, a senior at Tennessee-Chattanooga, parlays that victory into future success—perhaps on the PGA Tour—is uncertain, but if the next leg of his journey is as filled with as many fortuitous mentoring relationships and life-altering lessons as the first, more major championships could be in store.

Every person’s life is shaped by the kindnesses of others, revelations that can be stored away for future use, random happenstance or any combination of the three, which may be particularly true for Fox. That became obvious after Fox sank a 12-foot birdie putt on the No. 1 hole at famed Cherry Hills Country Club and the world wanted to know his story.

Several events and relationships in his life helped mold Fox into a champion. It all started when he was two years old.

The son of basketball players

Fox was supposed to be a basketball player. His parents met on the courts at famed Marine Park in Brooklyn. Mother Maureen was a scholarship player at LIU Brooklyn. Father Alan played professionally in Israel.

We heard it a lot,” Alan Fox said. “You guys should get married, because you could have a helluva basketball player when you had children.”

Alan and Maureen would have three children, and their only son did take to basketball. But golf got its hooks in him first. Fox was two years old when he began hitting balls in the backyard of the family’s home. By the time Steven was four, a club professional in North Carolina gave Alan Fox some advice that would one day help his son win the USGA’s most significant amateur championship.

Make the short game fun,” the pro said.

Steven showed aptitude for chipping, pitching and putting, rare for a player so young. His parents began to think golf, not basketball, would be the sport at which he would excel, and they began thinking of ways to encourage him and develop his talent.

We knew early on he was going to be good,” said Alan Fox, whose job as a salesman took the family to Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and, finally Hendersonville, Tenn. “We actually flew him out to [famed teacher] David Leadbetter’s academy when he was six years old. I didn’t know much about how junior golf worked, so we went to Leadbetter to find out more about it. They liked what they saw, and their advice was to start putting him in tournaments to see if he had what it takes.”

It took all of one tournament for young Steven to prove he did have what it takes. In his first junior tournament, played at a par-3 course, he shot 5-over-par 32, the low score among all age groups.

That’s when we knew maybe we had something,” Alan Fox said.

A lesson on never quitting

As he proved during his run to the U.S. Amateur championship, Steven Fox never gives up, no matter how dire the circumstances. Asked how his son developed that mindset, Alan Fox thought for a second, then told a story about a lesson he imparted on his son, albeit unwittingly.

I played in a recreation basketball league when Steven was young,” Alan said. “Our team was down 11 points with 1:03 to go. Steven’s watching in the stands, and he’s old enough to understand what’s going on.

I remember hitting a few shots, and with three seconds to go, we were down by two. The other team had the ball under the basket. I stole the pass at the top of the key and hit the shot to win the game.

In all the excitement after the game, I can feel somebody grabbing my leg. I looked down and it was Steven. He was so excited. I’ve never told this story before, but as I think about it, that was his first real lesson about never giving up.”

A chance meeting

One day when Steven was about 12 years old, Alan got an invitation to play in select shot tournament on the other side of the state.

Someone my company did business with needed a foursome,” Alan Fox recalls. “He knew Steven played golf. So he asked if Steven and I, and one of his friends, wanted to play. Steven’s friend was a very good player—he later played on the Hooters and Nationwide Tour—so we decided to drive over and play.”

Brian Lackey, then a professional at Palencia Club, where the tournament was played, remembers that foursome. Especially the skinny little kid that won every prize.

Every closest to the pin, longest drive, longest straightest drive,” Lackey said. “We even had a contest where you hit a wedge to a chair; he won that, too.”

After the tournament, when they were handing out the prizes, I kept sinking in my chair because they kept calling Steven’s name,” Alan Fox said. “It was getting to be too much. We’d shot 15 under and won the tournament, and here was Steven, winning all these prizes. I actually gave some of them back because it was embarrassing.”

That made an impression on me,” Lackey said. “How could one little kid win everything?”

Lackey would learn the answer to that question a few years later, after taking a teaching position in the Nashville area.

Alan Fox’s job also led his family to Nashville, where Steven would start playing golf as a freshman for Hendersonville High School.

After we got there, my dad looked around at golf courses and teachers, did a bunch of research,” Steven said.

Eventually, Alan made a decision on the next person who would nurture his son’s promising golf game. When he took Steven to meet his new instructor for the first time, Brian Lackey was taken aback.

I thought to myself, ‘this kid looks familiar,’ ” Lackey said. “So I went home that night and went through some old newsletters [from Palencia]. And I found the one I was looking for. This was the kid who won all those prizes that day.

I took the newsletter to our next lesson and told Steven, ‘I was there when you did this.’ It’s almost scary how we first met in Florida and then kind of reunited in Hendersonville, Tenn. What are the odds?”

Lackey quickly saw that young Fox had lost none of the touch that helped him clean house at that select shot tournament in Florida.

I watched him hit a few balls, and I tweaked a few things,” Lackey recalls. “Then I said, let’s go take a look at your short game and putting. I was blown away. It was pretty evident to me that he had the ability, that once he grew and got stronger, he was going to be a player.”

Steven immediately liked Lackey, and a bond was formed. Seven years later, student and teacher are still together.

We have a good connection,” Fox said. “Our personalities are similar. We can talk about anything, and we have a lot of fun. That’s what I look for in a teacher. I don’t want it to be all serious.”

Lackey’s teaching style also meshed with the way Fox prefers to learn.

I’m a feel player,” Fox said. “If I’m working on something, Brian understands my swing well enough to know that I just need a drill to get the club in the right position. I need to feel it. That’s how it’s always been, and that has made the game easier for me.”

Lackey helped unleash a force on Tennessee high school and junior golf. Fox was a two-time high school All-American at Hendersonville. He won the 2008 Tennessee Junior Amateur after shooting three consecutive rounds of 68. He shot 65-71-67 to win the 2009 Bubba Conlee National Junior. Just as significant, he shot an opening-round 64 in the 2009 Tennessee Open and went on to tie for second in a field loaded with the state’s best club professionals and amateurs.

The next frontier was college golf.

Finding a home in Chattanooga

Fox could have signed with a lot of schools, but something about the program Mark Guhne was building at Chattanooga appealed to him. Neither Fox nor Guhne will forget the day the player came to UTC with his father on an unofficial visit.

I spent the day with the team, got to see all the courses where we could play, the university … and I loved it all,” Fox said. “On the way home, I told my dad I wanted to sign with Chattanooga. He said, ‘are you sure?’ I told him I was.”

Guhne will never forget the phone call he got from Fox.

He told me as he left that he’d get back to me in a week or so,” Guhne said. “By time he got to Monteagle [on his drive back to Nashville], he was calling me to tell me he was coming to Chattanooga.”

As talented as Fox was when he showed up to play for Guhne, there were some rough edges that had to be smoothed over.

When I got to Chattanooga, I still didn’t know how to play the game,” Fox said. “I hit driver on every hole, fired at every pin. Coach Guhne and [assistant coaches] David McKenna and Ben Ricketts taught me how to play the game.”

When he got here, he had to learn how to take better routes,” Guhne said. “He had to learn to make better decisions. And he did it.”

As a freshman, Fox played in every tournament, tied for medalist at the Furman Intercollegiate and earned Southern Conference All-Freshman team honors. The next season, Fox racked up three top 10 finishes, set a school record with a 67 in the NCAA regionals and was chosen All-Southern Conference.

Last season Fox again earned All-Socon honors and was also chosen to the PING/Golfweek All-East Region team. He tied for third in the NCAA Bowling Green regional and helped the Mocs win the tournament and advance to the NCAA Championship with a 64 that smashed his own school postseason play record and set the course record at the Club at Olde Stone.

He’s been great,” Guhne said. “With Steven, it was more convincing him how good he really was. He knew he was a pretty good player, but he grew up with some great players who had done some things that he hadn’t done yet. So he was kind of like, am I one of those players or not?”

By late August, Fox answered that question.

Road to the Amateur title: Never quit

Fox’s U.S. Amateur experience nearly ended before it began. After shooting a 1-over-par 73 in the morning round of a grueling 36-hole qualifier at Knoxville’s Willow Creek Golf Club last July, Fox was puzzled. The round included a cold shank that epitomized his struggles and got inside his head. Where did that come from? And would it happen again?

I literally shanked a golf ball,” Fox said, shaking his head at the recollection. “I wasn’t sure what was ahead of me, or what to think after that.”

Perhaps, but he wasn’t about to give up. He had another 18 holes left.

I just knew that I had to go out and play well,” Fox said.

And play well he did. Fox’s 8-under-par 64 included a barrage of five birdies on his final six holes. His 36-hole score of 7-under-par 137, just a shot behind Chattanooga’s Keith Mitchell, comfortably secured his first trip to the U.S. Amateur.

It was an amazing accomplishment,” Fox said.

He was just getting started.

Squeezing in to match play

The Amateur would be played at historic Cherry Hills Country Club, where Arnold Palmer put on his legendary charge to win the 1960 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson won the U.S. Amateur in 1990, Jack Nicklaus won the 1993 U.S. Senior Open and another amateur Tennessee golfer of considerable ability, Lew Oehmig, won the 1976 U.S. Senior Open.

After two rounds of stroke play, Fox found himself in an epic playoff to get into match play—17 players for 14 spots. Once again, he had to call upon that same reserve of strength he needed in Knoxville.

The playoff didn’t start well.

On No. 10, a 441-yard par 4, Fox made a bogey. Luckily, only one golfer among the 17 made a birdie on the hole and just six others made par. That left Fox competing with 10 players for seven spots.

Fox parred the 594-yard par-5 11th hole. Two players made birdie and claimed qualifying spots. Now the playoff was down to eight players for five spots.

Fox’s putter, which would serve him so well all week, was about to spring into action.

On the par-3 12th, two players made birdies and claimed match play spots. Now six players remained in the playoff.

Facing a six-foot par putt to hang around, Fox drained it, and the playoff moved to the par-4 13th.

Now it’s four for three,” Fox said. “And all of us missed the green.”

Fox’s third shot left him with a 10-footer for par, which he made to claim the 63rd spot in match play. “It was an unbelievable up and down,” Fox said.

Taped replays showed Fox as he sized up the putt and then rolled it in the hole. What stands out is how calm he looked.

Battling through the bracket

Fox didn’t back into the Amateur championship. He had to earn it, starting with his first match. His opponent, No. 2 seed Jeff Osberg, led 2-up after three holes, but Fox made consecutive birdies at Nos. 5 and 6 to square the match, giving him momentum that he would hang on to the rest of the tournament.

Fox went 1-up with a par at No. 9, birdied No. 11 to go 2-up, moved to 3-up with a par at No. 12 and took an insurmountable 4-up lead with a par at No. 14.

Beating the No. 2 seed—who was a good player, look what he did in stroke play—was huge for me,” Fox said. “From there, it almost seemed like it would get easier.”

It didn’t get easier, but Fox made it look that way. In the round of 32, he defeated Douglas Hanzel of Savannah, Ga., who Golf Digest had anointed as the best golfing doctor in the country. In the round of 16, Fox was 1-down to the College of Charleston’s Zach Munroe after 14 holes but won 16, 17 and 18 for a 2-up victory.

Fox was on a roll. His next opponent, University of Washington All-America Chris Williams, was the No. 1-rated amateur in the world at the time. If that intimated Fox, he didn’t let on. He led 2-up after four holes, 4-up after 9 and cruised to a 4 and 2 victory.

A trip to the Masters on the line

Fox had to take out half the Pac-12 to win the championship. His opponent in the semifinals was Brandon Hagy, an All-American from the University of California. Fox led 1-up heading into the 18th, where anything could have happened.

Standing over a 205-yard shot into the green, Fox pondered his options.

I kept throwing around a bunch of different numbers in my head,” Fox said, “just trying to figure out the best place to leave it. And I told myself, just swing it like you know how, and luckily it worked.”

Fox’s shot landed about eight feet from the hole. Hagy’s approach left him a 40-foot birdie putt. When it rolled 30 feet past the hole, he conceded Fox’s birdie. Fox won, 2-up, and that 4-iron he used to secure the victory now resides in the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

The victory took some small degree of pressure off Fox’s shoulders. By fighting his way into the championship match against Michael Weaver, another player from Cal, Fox assured himself a spot in the Masters, which invites the U.S. Amateur and runner-up.

A final, fateful decision

All week long, Steven’s father Alan had carried his bag. “Cleaning clubs and offering moral support,” he said. But when Chattanooga’s coaches flew to Colorado for the championship match, Alan approached them with a suggestion. He served his son one final time in first 18 holes of the championship match, during which Weaver took a 2-up lead, but he was ready to relinquish the job, thinking one of Steven’s coaches could serve him better in the gut-wrenching final 18.

I said it’s OK with me if one of you guys wants to carry the bag,” Alan said. “Steven then made the decision to let [UTC assistant coach] Ben Ricketts do it. I was proud of him for making the right decision.

On the first tee, I saw Ben and Steven talking. They were loose. They were already picking out targets and talking about club selection. I was thrilled to death.”

As Alan thought, Ricketts, who had been Fox’s teammate when he was a freshman and Ricketts a senior, were a good team. But despite the extra help on his bag, Fox was two down with just two holes to play.

Even Fox, who had learned at an early age to never give up, thought the match was over.

I thought that was it,” Fox said. “It thought it was his time to win. This was going to be his day. But I was going to keep fighting.”

On the 35th hole of the match, the par-5 17th, Weaver missed a 12-foot birdie putt. Before he stood over his 10-footer for birdie, Fox consulted Rickett, who gave his man the read.

Fox followed orders.

And I made it,” Fox said. “Back of the hole, the crowd going for me. Little fist pump. Go to 18 1-down.”

The 2012 U.S. Amateur championship came down to a five-foot par put on the 18th hole. That’s all that stood between Weaver and the championship, but when he hit the putt a bit too hard, the ball rimmed out.

Watching his putt, I don’t think I breathed for about 10 seconds,” said Fox, who won the hole with a par. “I had my hand over my mouth. I was in total shock. I felt so bad for Michael. I can’t imagine what he was going through.”

The match moved on to No. 1, a short par-4 where Fox resisted the urge to pull out a driver, as Arnold Palmer did in 1960 to start his final round of the U.S. Open. Palmer drove the green, made birdie and went on to shoot 65 and take the championship away from Mike Souchak, who was seven shots ahead of Palmer as the final round began.

Fox had no designs on recreating history. His club of choice: 6-iron.

I just wanted to leave myself that 70, 80-yard wedge shot,” Fox said. “No. 1 is a tough driving hole if you’re hitting driver. There are a few places you can’t miss it.”

Weaver, who hit driver, found one of them—left of the green, nearly on the No. 2 tee box.

While Weaver assessed his options, Fox pulled out his favorite club—a Titleist 60-degree wedge—and hit a shot so pure Rickett had a hard time cleaning out fragments of the ball’s cover that were stuck in the club’s grooves in the dead center of the face. The shot landed softly and rolled to 15 feet past the hole, leaving Fox a quick downhill putt.

And that 60-degree wedge? It’ll forever be on display in the Cherry Hills clubhouse, alongside clubs from the winners of other significant major championships played there, including the driver Palmer used to drive No. 1 in 1960 and a 7-iron Lew Oehmig, used in the 1976 U.S. Senior Amateur.

Weaver hit his second shot too soft, and it landed in thick rough beside the green. All he could do from there was hack his ball out and onto the green, leaving him a par putt of around 20 feet.

But Fox was deemed by a USGA official to be away and would putt first.

Ben and I were talking and we said to just try and get it close and get a concession, try to put the pressure back on him to make a 20-footer [for par],” Fox said. “We picked a line and got the ball rolling. Just one or two revolutions and it went all the way down.

As it got closer, I was like, ‘please, please, please.’ It went in and I think I blacked out for a second. The crowd erupted. It was unreal.”

And Fox was the U.S. Amateur champion. His month-long quest is a story for the ages, and a lesson to competitors of any skill level, in any sport, of any age.

Never give up.

That Steven Fox could win the U.S. Amateur surprised none of the key mentors in his life.

All his life, he prepared for something like this,” Alan Fox said. “We knew he could be special. When that last putt dropped [against Weaver], I saw Steven’s emotion, and I got emotional. It was a proud moment. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Does it surprise me that Steven could win the U.S. Amateur?” UTC coach Mark Guhne said. “Not one bit. His game is made for that tournament. And I knew that once he got into the semifinals [of match play] that he had as good a shot to win as anybody.”

Guhne wasn’t just referring to Fox’s physical skills. He was also talking about competitive spirit, intelligence, the ability to stay calm, no matter the situation.

You can’t teach what Steven has between his ears,” Brian Lackey said.

Perhaps Lackey’s right. Maybe what Fox possesses can’t be taught in any formal way. But thanks to the kindnesses of others, revelations that were stored away for future use and random happenstance, Fox absorbed the lessons he needed to learn to become a major champion.

 






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