On Sunday afternoon a gangly UTC student named Steven Fox went from a kid we’ve hardly heard of to a champion we’ll never forget. On a day when he should have been planning for Monday’s first day of classes, the unflappable senior from Hendersonville reached a higher pinnacle in sport than anybody who has ever lived in Chattanooga when he won the 2012 U.S. Amateur Golf Championship at Cherry Hills Village, Colo.
Fox, an unlikely hero who played in the shadow of Moc teammate Stephen Jaeger all spring, was seeded 63rd in the 64-player field and trailed ever-steady Michael Weaver of Fresno, Calif., for most of the day in the 36-hole finals Sunday. But in the most heroic finish anyone can remember, Fox rallied from two down with two holes remaining to win three straight holes, dropping a spectacular 18-foot putt for birdie on the first extra hole for the greatest victory in both the university’s and the city of Chattanooga’s history.
I’m hardly a Johnny-come-lately and while there have been some great moments in the 50-odd years I’ve monitored Chattanooga sports – like Roscoe Tanner in the Wimbledon finals or various teams winning national titles -- nothing comes close to Fox’s sheer brilliance down the stretch, especially after Weaver, a 21-year-old from the University of California, lipped out what appeared to be a sure dagger of a five-foot putt on the 36th hole that would have ended the match.
"It was like dead center from my angle,” Fox said afterwards. “When I saw it bounce out, I kind of gasped a little bit … I think I put my hand over my mouth. I was shocked. And quickly I had to gather myself and go to the playoff."
The better truth is that ever since Steven first began his U.S. Amateur odyssey, he gasped time and time again. In the initial qualifying for the prestigious tournament, he had a 74 in a lackluster opening round before carding a stunning 63 at Knoxville’s Willow Creek course. From the worst of six UTC golfers after the first day, he emerged right behind Chattanooga’s Keith Mitchell to advance.
Then he survived a 17-for-14 playoff to qualify for the 64-player field – this after 312 players from 43 states and 20 countries began to be pared from a stunning field. Fox whipped the top-ranked amateur in the world – Chris Williams – during his Colorado charge and in Saturday’s semifinals he “out-foxed” his first California Bear, Weaver’s highly-touted teammate, Brandon Hagy.
Weaver was in clear control early Sunday afternoon, methodical and precise, but Fox was relentless and the telling putt on the 36th hole obviously devoured Weaver as he scattered two shots on the first extra hole. "I thought I made my putt," said a teary-eyed Weaver.
"I kind of looked away, and I thought it went in, but it didn't,” he added. “That's golf, but just to see it slip through my fingers, it (stinks). And I know I had a great week and all that, but I'm not thinking about that right now. I still can’t believe what happened … "
Fox, on the other hand, is known for his ice-water veins. “We weren’t even sure he’d make match play,” said his personable coach, UTC’s Mark Guhne. “He was playing so well and then he got into match play. We knew that if he got there, he could be good because nothing bothers him. I have never seen him get mad or rattled on the golf course.
“Steven is one of these guys who can play a bad hole and then play a great hole. The kid can shoot 85-65 in a heartbeat,” said Mark, who in seven years at UTC has developed the 12,000-student school into a powerhouse that can compete with any team in the nation.
When Fox won his semifinal match, Guhne and his assistant coach, Ben Rickett, rushed to the Denver area tournament and their arrival was a Godsend. Steven’s dad, Alan, who played a year of semipro basketball in Israel after growing up in Brooklyn, had caddied for his son all week but a bout with angry foot blisters and the magnificent emotion roller-coaster had taken a toll by Sunday.
After his dad looped for Steven the first 18 holes, UTC assistant coach Ben Rickett – a native of England whose wife Shelley is a former UTC track athlete – got on Fox’s bag. “Ben’s walked with me a lot,” said Steven Fox. “We get along. We were smiling the whole day, laughing and making jokes and enjoying the crowd. It was awesome.”
Rickett was able to settle Fox – to keep the moment light – and his knowledge of golf and golfers was a key in Steven’s win. “Steven was warming up when I heard someone asking me, ‘Can you caddie?’” said Rickett. I told Steven I’d be honored. I would love to do it.
“Being around him since he was a freshman … I’ve never seen someone so clutch down the stretch,” said Ben but Fox went it one better. “Ben was what I needed. He got me focused and we talked about every shot. I can’t even explain it really,” said Fox.
“It didn’t’ seem like it was coming true. My goal was just to make it to match play, (this) being my first U.S. Am. And I just kept fighting and fighting. This is awesome.” Yes, and as his friend Rickett would add in his clipped British accent, “Quite!”
The rewards are far sweeter than just the immeasurable prestige and possession of the heralded Havemyer Trophy for a year. He has automatic invitations to next year’s Masters (he’ll be paired with Bubba Watson the first day), the U.S. Open, and the British Open.
But for the purist all that matters is the way Steven Fox – who will begin classes at UTC this week – described the greatest victory in Chattanooga history. "I just kept going and kept fighting. I'll never be one to give up. Things can click at any moment. You can find your swing or find your stroke throughout a round, and I just wanted to keep going."
Well played. Well played indeed.
The winning putt
- Photo2 by USGA