A Fox in the Tiger’s Den?

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This story was originally published in the April/May 2013 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine. 

So what do Steven Fox and Tiger Woods have in common…besides the obvious.

A fox and tiger, oops Fox and Tiger, are animal names and both are quick and crafty and capable of causing irreparable damage to other species.

This human Fox and this human Tiger are both crafty, and both will be playing in an event in April other golfers crave to play and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of golfers, even just long to be there for that second week in April.

Tiger has been the crème de la crème in gold shortly after breaking on the professional scene in 1996. Less than a year after winning the NCAA tournament at The Honors Course, he captured The Masters. It was like taking candy from…but he was the “baby.” His first major as a professional and he was the winner by a record 12 shots, tying The Masters 72-hole record with an 18-under-par 270.

Tiger was baby-faced, barely old enough for fuzz on his chin, though he was clean-shaven. Tiger was to become the player by whom all others are measured in golf, especially as it relates to the Masters. Five titles and counting.

As Steven Fox prepares for his first Masters, he is two years older than Tiger was when he made his earthquake-style intro as a pro. And, Steven does have scruff on his face.

Fox with Coach Mark Guhne

Fox with Coach Mark Guhne

He has been to Augusta three times to practice and his caddie Ben Rickett feels he has accomplished a lot. But the TV lights weren’t on, thousands did not line the fairways. Rory McElroy, Tiger and Bubba were elsewhere. And the greens-oh, those greens slicker than Vali’s ski slopes-were not nearly so quick.

As CBS proclaims, “It is a week like no other.” In sports, that is certainly true. The Masters is an event that needs no introduction to most, even to those who don’t play golf, even to those who have absolutely no interest in the sport.

Tiger Woods and Steven Fox were swinging a gold club when most at that age were just swinging. Their fathers, Earl for Eldrick (Tiger), and Alan for Steven, began having them swing a golf club when they were just two years of age. Barely out of diapers. Charismatic basketball analyst Dickie V. (Vitale) might have referred to them, as he does to young college prodigies, as diaper dandies.

“He seemed like a natural,” says Alan Fox , father of the prodigy who is close to finishing his career as a member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golf team.

Actually, what would have been natural would have been to give Steven a basketball while in his crib. Dad and mom (Maureen) grew up with that sport, Alan on the asphalt courts of New York City, Maureen playing at Brooklyn College and Long Island University.

“People used to tell us they thought our children would be great basketball players,” Alan says. But Fox the elder became enamored with golf after completing his professional basketball career in Israel and he noticed Steven’s proclivity for a rhythmic swing when he was barely out of diapers.

“I had actually cut down some clubs for his older sister, Ashley, when she was three, but she didn’t have much interest. Steven was chipping around the yard when he was two and it was easy to notice he had good coordination.”

Woods had an incredible junior career, winning the U.S Junior three times and the U.S Amateur three times, twice as a teenager. Fox’s portfolio does not run nearly so deep, but his father remembers the first tournament he won.

“He played in his first tournament when he was seven, in Shrewsberry, Massachusetts. He shot 32 on a par-3 course to not only win his age group (7-10), but all the age groups.”

Fox won the 2008 state junior and was a two-time National High School All-American, captured over 100 junior titles, counting age groups and won the Mason Rudolph Memorial, named for the former PGA Tour star, when he was a senior at Hendersonville, Tennessee High School.

Gibby Gilbert, the first Chattanoogan to play in The Masters in 1971 and who finished tied for second in 1981, saw Fox when he was a junior golfer playing in the Tennessee Open.

“I noticed how well he got up and down and how well he struck the ball,” Gibert says. “I called [coach]Mark Guhne about him then.”

fox-with-trophy_us-amateur_2012Rickett, a former assistant at UTC who was all-Southern Conference when he played for the Mocs, caddied for Fox at Cherry Hills when he won the U.S Amateur and he will loop for him again at Augusta. He agrees with Gilbert’s assessment.

“He is absolutely fantastic in that situation. He was at the U.S Amateur when he was two down with two to play. When it comes to the short game he’s phenomenal. He is able to do things around the greens most people don’t think about doing. It can be and was a game changer.”

Fox won the last two holes and the first extra hole to capture the match and the title. For the next two weeks Fox was in the hen house, dominating print media, radio and TV. HIs picture graced more billboards in the city than Andy Berke. The University threw a party in his honor and invited the city.

“I still can’t believe he pulled that off,” says his mother of the title. “I think he will do well at the Masters. I really believe he will make the cut.”

The cut, that magical number that enables players to spend the weekend, will be the low 44 and ties. The last Chattanoogan to play there, Luke List, made the cut and finished 33rd overall in 2005. List qualified by finishing runner-up in the 2004 U.S Amateur. List, who prepped at Baylor and played collegiately at Vandy is on the PGA Tour today, but has not qualified to play Augusta this year.

While Steven eyes Augusta like a Fox, he has not played particularly well collegiately since winning the U.S Amateur.

“He’s under the microscope,” says his coach, Mark Guhne. “That’s a lot of pressure for him. All of a sudden you’re supposed to be good every time you play. But he has been playing well of late.”

Brain Lackey, a two-time Tennessee PGA Section Teacher of the year, taught Fox for eight years. The 1996 UTC graduate is now at Gaylord in Nashville. He worked with Lucas Glover when he was at Wachesaw Plantation in South Carolina.

“i always said he has something special between the ears.” Lackey says. “His mindset is his greatest asset and his short game is No. 2. I think he’s got every chance to be one of the best.”

So does his current teacher, also a UTC graduate and former Moc player, Brad Rose. Rose teaches at Willow Springs in Knoxville. He also works with current Tour star Scott Stallings of Cookeville.

“He’s got the right attitude for golf,” Rose says. “He doesn’t seem to ever get upset. His personality for a Tour player is awesome because he’s laid back. Nothing seems to bother him.”

Fox, who is hoping to make the Walker Cup team and will defend his title at the U.S. Amateur before turning professional, will be disappointed if he doesn’t make the cut.

fox_us-amateur_2012-31“My short game is definitely the best part of my game and I’m driving the ball pretty well. My goal is to make the cut and re-evaluate if I can do that.”

Fox admits that his favorite player is the Tiger. While he has arranged to play practice rounds with Phil Mickelson, Stallings and Brain Gay, he’s not sure he can work something out with his boyhood idol.

He does know that he will be playing in the opening round with Bubba Watson. The Masters always pairs the defending champ with the U.S Amateur winner.

“I hear he’s a good ole boy and very laid back. That’s good for me,” he says in a cunning way. “Isn’t that just like a Fox?”

Story by Sam Woolwine
Photography courtesy of UTC

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