Ryan Fox. Richard Heathcote
You have to laugh. Or at least smile. At the end of a week in which just about every conversation and scrap of speculation revolved around the upcoming Ryder Cup, the winner of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth turned out to be someone who will never play for either side in the biennial transatlantic tussle.
Ryan Fox, a native of New Zealand was the interloper, the 36-year-old Auckland native’s closing 67 good enough to carry him to 18-under 280 and a one-shot victory over a brace of Englishmen, Aaron Rai and Tyrrell Hatton.
It was, as things turned out, an unlikely victory, even if Fox’s track record on the DP World Tour — he finished second behind only Rory McIlroy on the Race to Dubai last year — is one deserving of overall respect. This season, however, wasn’t going nearly so well until a first top-10 of 2023 in last week’s Horizon Irish Open came along after a month-long break at home.
Adding to the long odds against a Fox victory was the fact he got off to the sort of start that usually sends golfers into prolonged tailspins. His tee shot on the par-4 third hole found out-of-bounds right, leading to an eventual triple-bogey 7. Standing on the seventh tee, the burly Kiwi was, at least temporarily, five shots off the pace that was still being set by golf’s new “it” player, newly minted pro and 54-hole leader Ludvig Aberg.
That situation was soon to change. As Aberg went backwards, Fox began accelerating through the field via a string of eight birdies that started on the par-4 sixth, continued despite a nearly hour-and-a-half weather delay and ended on the par-5 18th. The last was achieved after Fox watched Hatton hole a birdie of his own on the home hole to get to 17-under — and despite a poor tee shot that found the rough and forced him to lay-up short of the water fronting the distant green. The wedge from there was pure though, finishing maybe six feet from the cup. In went the putt, a fitting climax to a back-nine 31 that included six of those eight birdies and with no putt longer than 12 feet.
Arguably the most impressive of the birdies came just after the resumption of play, Fox finding himself in the left rough on the par-4 15th hole. He then played this impressive recovery shot.
— DP World Tour (@DPWorldTour) September 17, 2023
“I certainly didn’t think I would be talking to anyone about winning after the third hole,” said a breathless Fox. “I don’t really know what to think at the moment. I’ve always struggled a little bit around here. I’ve maybe snuck one top-20 and struggled to make any cuts. To have a back nine like that, especially after how I started the day, it’s amazing. I played great. Pretty much didn’t miss a shot from the third hole onwards and saw a couple of putts go in. It was a pretty cool feeling on the last to know I had one to win and actually make it.”
A little earlier and in as low key a manner as Rory McIlroy shooting a seven-under 65 can ever be, the World No. 2 rounded off his tournament by bouncing on to a leaderboard from which he had previously been conspicuously absent. He left happy enough though. For a man who had to birdie the final hole of his second round to make the cut on the number, a 12-under weekend and a T-7 finish represented a satisfactory send-off to his next competitive outing, the Ryder Cup.
“When you look at the weekend as a whole, it’s a very solid two days of golf,” said McIlroy, who incidentally extended his lead atop the DP World Tour’s Race to Dubai. “I said on Friday night that making the cut gave me the opportunity to go out and shoot a couple of good scores and feel a bit better about where my game is. And that’s what I’ve done.”
Still, ever the competitor, McIlroy wasn’t totally satisfied with his final-day efforts. The 5-5 finish (par-par) was especially irritating, the thought having crossed his mind that a 15-under total rather than his 13-under might just have put those in contention under a wee bit of extra pressure. But it wasn’t to be.
“I’m not disappointed that I haven’t won. I’m more disappointed that I couldn’t take advantage of the positions I put myself in on 17 and 18,” he said. “Even if I had birdied those two holes and not won at least I’d have given myself every chance and made the guys out on the course work for it a little more.”
In other news, Aberg turned out to be human after all. Two shots clear with 18 holes to play in only his 10th start as a professional golfer, the 23-year-old Swede stumbled to an error-strewn 76 that lowered him into a T-10 finish. It was, for someone who has cleared every professional hurdle since leaving the amateur ranks in June, a first “failure,” is a top-10 finish in the DP World Tour’s biggest event can be so described.
“A lot of these things I am doing at the moment are things I am doing for the first time,” said Aberg, who will make his Ryder Cup debut for Europe later this month. “This was the first time I was leading a tournament and I felt like I handled it quite well, to be honest. It was quite difficult out there, but I made a few stupid mistakes where I missed on the wrong side and was a little bit too cute with the chips. It cost me today and I’m trying to learn from it. I’m already looking forward to the next time I’m in that same position, although this is going to sting for a long time.”