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Built to stand the pace

Graham Fox from West Kilbride is the latest young Scots hopeful to earn a Tour card and try to make a living as a professional golfer. Earlier this year he told Martin Vousden why

Graham Fox looks like a pro golfer. From the moment you shake his hand you are reminded of stars like Tom Watson, Craig Parry and Ian Woosnam.
And without wishing to be offensive (and Graham would be the first to admit that he doesn't yet deserve to bracketed in such illustrious company) the similarity is not about his game - yet - it is about his physique. He has that squat, powerhouse frame that has helped propel so many before him to the top of the pro ranks.
But most strikingly, he has the forearms of a touring pro. Craig Parry is famously nicknamed 'Popeye' because of the apparently spinach-enhanced size of is upper limbs; Watson and Woosnam also look as if they tear telephone directories in half for recreation.
Fox has them as well - those beefy, muscular, powerful forearms that are a testament to millions of balls struck; months spent on the practice range and many, many miles on the course. At the age of 24 his physique is all the reminder you need that, in order to succeed in this most impossible of sports to master, nowadays you need to start early, become completely blinkered, and put in the hours of practice.
But why now, with a Walker Cup looming, has Graham taken the plunge to turn a successful amateur career into the uncertainty, pain and inevitable frustration of trying to make it in the paid ranks?
'It was just the thought of being maybe in this same position but a year older,' he says. 'I'm 24 now and had a fairly successful amateur career. Then I came second in stage I of the pro qualifiers last year and went over to Spain for stage II.'
But you didn't qualify from stage II?
'No I didn't,' he says, 'I was rusty. It was in October, the weather at home had been horrible and I therefore couldn't practice much so consequently had a bad first round, a four over par 77. I then went one under and five under and only missed the cut by a couple of shots in the end.
'I was pleased because I knew in the third round I had to shoot a really good score and almost did it, so that gave me the confidence to know I could compete. If I could have gone over about 10 days before I would have cruised it.'
It's a telling quote. He is, remember, talking here about a failure to qualify and yet he takes only the positive from it. To be a success at the highest level of sport you often need to be thick or thick-skinned - Walter Hagen once famously remarked: 'Give me a man with big hands, big feet and no brains and I will make a golfer out of him.' And along with those physical qualities, an indomitable spirit and refusal to accept your own fallibility are pretty useful.
There is a telling story about Seve Ballesteros who, some years ago, was facing a daunting shot, well in excess of 200 yards, to a green protected by water. His caddie suggested a 3-wood to be safe. Seve said no, it's a 1-iron. The caddie disagreed and a dispute ensued, after which Seve took the 1-iron from the bag himself.
He made a perfect swing and struck the ball as sweetly as it is possible for a ball to be struck. It sailed towards the green and fell short by about three feet. The caddie was feeling vindicated about both his advice and his insistence when, to his amazement, Seve turned and said: 'It's your fault. You put doubt in my mind.'
That's the way you have to think if you're going to make money at any professional sport, especially golf - you have to believe, with unshakeable certainty, that you're good enough. And if the evidence suggests otherwise; well, the evidence must be wrong. It's a necessary defence and Graham Fox shows all the signs of having it fixed in place.
When he suggested he would have 'cruised it' if only able to have a bit more practice, it seemed logical to point out that it doesn't usually work out that way; we can play our best golf after a layoff or while we're feeling lousy, and vice versa.
'But I could have got rid of the rust and prepared properly,' he says, 'so I think it would have been much, much easier. I think I will get on very well on tour. From playing with the guys at tour school and a couple of European Tour pros I know, I would fancy my chances of beating them.'
The same self-belief is shown later when I suggest that, as he finished sixth in last year's Johnnie Walker Order of Merit ranking in Scotland, there are presumably at least five other Scottish amateurs better than him, and therefore more likely to succeed as a pro.
'But I think I'm a better player than every one of those guys,' he responds. 'I won the Champion of Champions but it doesn't score any points towards the rankings and I missed four counting events for a number of reasons. There's no doubt in my mind that if I had played in them, I would have come at least second to Steven O'Hara in the order of merit.'
It is important to emphasise here that quotes taken out of context, or even those in context, can be misleading. Graham Fox is not bombastic, arrogant or supercilious - quite the reverse, he is well-mannered, affable and agreeable company - so it is necessary to recognise that when he says such things, he does so quietly, soberly and with no malice towards anyone else. It is simply the essential process of convincing himself that he can survive in the shark-infested waters into which he has just plunged.
It therefore seemed natural to ask what it is that separates winners from wannabes.
'How bad you want it,' he says. 'Ian Rae [Scottish national golf coach] has said that and I think he's right. There must be a few out there who want it very badly but don't have the talent but with the others, it comes down to desire.'
Ah, talent. So what are the particular strengths of Graham's own game?
'Over the last couple of years I have become more consistent at a higher level,' he says. 'My short game has always been the strongest part of my golf for as long as I can remember. I'm a good putter but then again, that's what I tend to work on most. I'm not a ball belter - I practice scoring rather than hitting perfect shots.'
Having established that Graham could rustle up about £1,000, if he was really pushed, I offered to bet that amount against him holing one six foot putt. He hardly blinked before saying: 'On West Kilbride greens? No! But on good greens, yes, I'd take that bet.'
It's an interesting insight into youthful belief in one's own talent. Especially when you remember that machines have been developed that can deliver exactly the same putting stroke time after time. And when you use these machines, on perfectly flat putting surfaces, one in 100 putts will still be missed.
Graham says he can't really remember what it's like to be a happy hacker, he was a scratch player by the age of 14 and says: 'We had an exceptionally good junior team. One year, for example, five of us entered the British Boys. I first picked up a club at the age of eleven-and-a-half - well, there's not much else to do in West Kilbride. A couple of friends were members so I went for a look and was hooked.'
Because Graham is affable and easy-going, his bouts of apparently supreme self-confidence come as something of a surprise. But there are at least three more shocks in store and those of you with a nervous disposition should sit down before reading on.
First, he's an Arsenal supporter. Second, he hates Rangers. Third, he's intelligent, can lose himself in bookshops for hours on end, and has a wide-ranging curiosity about the world around him.
So let's get the really bad stuff out of the way first; how did he ever become an Arsenal supporter?
'I always liked them as a youngster for some reason and while I was competing in the British Boys I had some time to kill and went to Highbury. It just grew from there. I also look to see Rangers get beaten because everyone I know supports them. They wind me up unbelievably over Arsenal so me being able to trash Rangers is just revenge.'
And the reading? 'I read anything and everything,' he says, 'anything I can get my hands on. I'm currently reading Biohazard, which is about chemical warfare, and I've been watching a thing on Sky about an Australian crocodile hunter. If I didn't play golf, I could see myself working with him.'
Professional athletes are not necessarily known for their intelligence - it has even been suggested that they provide the missing link in evolution theory between man and primate. In golf we're blessed with more people of intelligence and sensitivity than most sports but even so, the average tour pro probably uses his bookcase to store trophies, and if his flight bag contains any literature at all, it is likely to be that latest John Grisham or Arthur Hailey airport blockbuster.
So Graham Fox is a bit different. Wish him well and follow his results but whatever you do, don't arm wrestle him for money.

Graham Fox on:
When I need to be I'm an aggressive player. You're never going to play your best all the time and you're never going to have your 'A' game all the time so it's down to minimising mistakes. Who cares if you don't hit it perfect as long as you score?

Tiger Woods
He's simply tremendous. Everything he does comes across well and his golf is supreme. He's beating his scoring average of last year and people are talking about a crisis, but it means the rest have had to improve. If he wants to, I think he can beat Jack Nicklaus' record of majors. What amazes me is that eventually someone will come along and beat all of Tiger's records (and I will be the man to do it!)

Handicap players' best way to improve
Go to your pro and get the basics right, and always try to hit a few balls before playing. It's amazing the number of people you see with a bad set-up and dodgy grip.

His favourite courses
Carnoustie, as long as they don't overdo it, as they did for the Open. It's long anyway and there's nearly always a wind so you don't need to grow punishing rough. Dornoch as well; I prefer really tough courses because it gets rid of the not so good players. And I also think Hoylake's a great course. Kingston Heath in Melbourne, Australia, is probably the best course I've ever played. And there's a place called Superstition Mountain in Arizona; great course and world class facilities.

The Scottish national golf coach
I have been hooked up with Ian Rae for a couple of years and he's the best coach I have ever worked with. He knows so much about the swing but, more importantly, gets you to understand it.

©    27 - NOVEMBER 2001

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