James Fox hopes to go from famine to feast after ending his 20-year wait for a major championship glory when he was crowned North of Ireland champion in fading light at Royal Portrush in September.
Fox, the younger brother of former Walker Cup player and six-time Irish major champion Noel, had seen success in his experiences caddying for him but had never tasted the fruits of victory. Until now.
“I’d never won a championship before. I won a few Scratch Cups and won Senior Cups with Portmarnock, but I’ve never won a championship – I lost the East by a shot and that was the closest I had come. It’s great to finally pick one up. Hopefully it is the start of bigger things and not the pinnacle,” explains Fox who believes he still has part of the mountain to scale rather than having climbed his Everest.
“It’s incredible, my brother Noel has won six Irish championships and I caddied for him in a couple of them, so I know what it’s like to be around them. I caddied for him quite a bit in championships and senior cup and a little after he turned pro. Before I had played my first championship, I had been in them for ten years.”
At 41 years of age and after 80 championships, Fox couldn’t have picked a more dramatic moment to clinch his first major. Only himself and Irish Close champion Robert Moran were left standing, tied on four-over, and a three-hole playoff wasn’t enough to separate the pair in near darkness.
As a result, the Portmarnock man was declared the winner on a countback, thus joining his brother in elite company in Irish amateur golf.
“It was bizarre, the darkness was the crazy thing about it, as you know, most people can only imagine having a putt to win a championship, but you would never imagine that putt would be in the dark!
“The countback didn’t come into my mind until the final putt because if you are in a sudden death playoff with the Irish Close champion and your thoughts are to hang on to try and get three halves, you will get beaten on the first hole by someone like Rob because he is a fantastic player.
“I was trying to birdie each hole to try and win, as was Rob, we both hit driver down the first. It wasn’t until Rob missed his par putt on the third hole that it came into my mind that I had this putt to win the championship but if I miss I would lose the championship, so it was a unique situation but glad I finally got over the line.
“I knew playing the last in regulation that a four would win and I missed the green left and chipped to ten feet and missed the putt to win and we went into a playoff. The putt in regulation felt a lot less pressure because I knew if I missed I was still alive whereas the putt in the playoff was effectively for the tournament, if I make it I win, miss and I lose so that was difficult but thankfully it found the bottom of the cup.”
Fox took up the game of golf when he was eight years old after his father arrived home with a set of cut down clubs. Growing up a mile from Portmarnock Golf Club, he would sneak out with his father and play a few holes out of sight of the clubhouse.
Family remains a huge influence on his life and he balances his half-hour practice around the lives of his children. With a wife who has a taxing profession, finding the time to play in six championships is a balancing act.
“I have three young kids; my wife is a surgeon, so she is busy with work. We sit down every year, and I give her the dates for the championships, and she looks at her ‘on call’ rota and we figure it out. When I played the 36 holes in the North, I had three different people looking after my kids and doing the school run, so without the support of my family and particularly my wife, I would have no chance of playing in these things never mind winning.”
Irish amateur golf has rarely seen such a depth of talent coming through but there has been no sign that the elder, part-time amateurs are going to be forced off the podium anytime soon with Fox joining fellow experienced major champions Peter O’Keeffe, Colm Campbell and Robbie Cannon in the winners circle.
“I did believe I could still win one. I had been close before and I knew this year that I had been playing nicely and I had a feeling that with the change in format and the Close and the North going from matchplay to strokeplay, that I would have a chance,” says Fox who saw a 36-hole lead at the 2012 East of Ireland Championship finally disappear on the 72nd hole.
“I played very nicely at the Irish Amateur in the Island but didn’t have a great last nine holes and fell out of contention but for 63 holes I had a chance to win that so I knew at some point during the year I would get another chance.
“You look at anyone in golf and most sports, you have to lose before you can win, there is no way I would have won the North if I hadn’t lost the East. The experience I gained from losing that tournament, even though it was ten years ago. I had a big lead after 36 holes and stayed in the lead until the 71st hole and then lost it by a shot. I learned so much from that loss that I was able to put into practice in Portrush and get over the line.”
Fox is without a full-time golf coach, but he admits it would be foolish of him not to seek the advice of his brother Noel who is one of the top PGA professionals in the country.
“Not coaching really, but I rely on him a lot for advice,” he says. “I have done for thirty years. By the time I had taken up golf at seven or eight, Noel was already a scratch golfer and when I became half-decent, he was an international and winning these so I have been learning from him my whole life and nothing has changed.
“I had a long-term teacher from America who passed away unfortunately a couple of years ago, for ten years I saw him once a year and since he passed, I never sought another coach. At the same time, I am not stupid, my brother is one of the best teachers in the country, so I’m not shy of asking him for his help when it’s needed.”
It’s all part of the masterplan for Fox who only has one goal in golf. Winning.
“I’m a pure amateur golfer,” he explains, “my only interest is winning things. I’m not interested in learning my game and developing for professional golf. I play six tournaments a year and that’s all I play, I don’t play monthly medals or scratch cups or casual golf, my only interest is winning so it is great to finally get one.”
The above feature appeared in the 2023-8 edition of Irish Golfer. To view the full edition click below