published Monday, April 8th, 2013

Special week ahead for Steven Fox

UTC senior golfer and reigning U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox will play in the Masters this week in Augusta, Ga.
UTC senior golfer and reigning U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox will play in the Masters this week in Augusta, Ga.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"It's completely changed my life. If it wasn't for that, I'd be graduating and maybe working for my dad. I wouldn't say I'm set, but pro golf is going to be easier."

— UTC senior golfer Steven Fox on winning the U.S. Amateur title

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — The polished Havemayer Trophy rests atop a bookshelf in the living room featuring photos of U.S. Amateur golf champion Steven Fox and his family.

It's on display for all who enter the Fox family home in suburban Nashville. The trophy is a priceless possession with the names of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods among those engraved on its base.

New photographs will be added when the family returns from watching Fox play in his next tournament -- the Masters.

"It's awesome," Fox said. "I can't wait. They say it's going to be the week of a lifetime."

Upstairs, in the bedroom Fox occupies when he's on break from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, shelves are stuffed with glass trophies he won playing junior golf, a football signed by former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck and other trinkets that mean something special to the college senior.

On his desk rests a pictorial book of the greatest week of his life to date. The USGA sent him a scrapbook of his victory from the 2012 U.S. Amateur Championship last August at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver with a letter of recognition signed by USGA president Glen Nager.

Atop Fox's dresser is a gold medal that he'll keep forever, proclaiming him the 2012 champion of amateur golf in America.

Just below the medal is a framed piece of paper just as precious: an invitation in green lettering on thick white paper to play this week in the Masters.

"It's completely changed my life," Fox said last week about the U.S. Am title. "If it wasn't for that, I'd be graduating and maybe working for my dad.

"I wouldn't say I'm set, but pro golf is going to be easier."

Thieves may be able to steal the trophy. They may be able to take his gold medal. Nobody can steal the experience Fox will have this week at Augusta National -- a week that may top his week at Cherry Hills.

He's playing in the Masters.

"It's a phenomenal experience that you're never going to forget," UTC coach Mark Guhne said. "He already knows what it's like to be out there, with the ropes, the media and the gallery, but this is taking it to a different level.

"Not many people get a chance to play on the biggest stage of all."

WINNING THE AM

He called it "unreal" at every opportunity for two weeks straight -- maybe longer.

Fox surprised the world of golf last Aug. 19 with his final-match victory in the U.S. Amateur. Coming back from two down with two holes to play, the 63rd seed in the match-play field of 64 defeated California senior Michael Weaver on the 37th hole that day.

It's the greatest achievement of any athlete who has donned a blue-and-gold UTC uniform. It rivals the team accomplishment of the basketball Mocs' 1997 run to the NCAA Sweet 16.

Weaver should have won.

Fox had his hat off, ready to shake hands. But Weaver's putt on the final hole of regulation circled the cup and spun away, giving Fox new life. The UTC senior used a conservative plan with the help of caddie Ben Rickett -- a UTC assistant coach at the time -- to win with a birdie on the first playoff hole.

"It's one of the most important moments in Mocs sports history in a long time, maybe ever," now-former chancellor Roger Brown said in August. "I was so proud of the way Steven conducetd himself, and watching our Chattanooga brand -- with an international audience -- with the 'Power C' on his head and 'Chattanooga' on his bag were tremendous thrills."

Fox is living the dream of almost every golfer born since Alister McKenzie shaped a course out of a nursery in 1931 and green jackets were first awarded in 1949.

"He didn't plan to be successful that week," Guhne said. "He didn't take enough clothes and had to buy a shirt for the semifinals. He just hoped to make the cut and play a match.

"From hoping to make the cut to winning the trophy is a long ways."

Fox's following on Twitter increased from about 100 followers before he began the tournament to more than 1,000 by the time he kissed the trophy.

A few days after returning to campus, a teammate had to urge Fox to pose for a photo with two attractive UTC students. He's now dating a former model -- a girl he dated in high school.

"When I first met him, I thought he was another goofy kid playing golf, and he still is," said UTC senior Davis Bunn, who met Fox about seven years ago. "It's been interesting to see his whole transformation to fame. But he's still the same Fox.

"He's still goofy and runs around in the apartment with his shirt off."

OBSCURITY TO CELEBRITY

UTC threw a reception for Fox a few days after his return from Denver. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Senator Bob Corker gave speeches praising Fox's accomplishments and asked for his autograph on UTC caps and Cherry Hills flags.

"It''s an incredible thing having a young man here at UTC winning the U.S. [Amateur], and people who don't know that much about golf may not understand the significance of this win," the senator said in August. "This is going to change his life. It distinguishes this university, this city and this young man. It's a great day for UTC and is something this university can be proud of for decades to come."

Fox has met the king, Arnold Palmer. He's represented the United States at the World Amateur Team Championship -- which he, Chris Williams and Justin Thomas combined to win in record fashion while playing in Antalya, Turkey. Another red-white-and-blue golf bag rests in his Hendersonville room from his participation in the Copa de las Americas in Miami.

The U.S. Am victory earned Fox a sponsor's exemption into PGA Tour events at Torrey Pines and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He skipped UTC events to play at both and gain invaluable experience that should help him when he becomes a professional after the British Open or later if he chooses to defend his USGA medal.

"It's a huge amount of experience," said Rickett, now director of golf at Dalton State, who will caddie for Fox again this week. "With Bay Hill, Augusta, Torrey, the U.S. Open, the British Open and maybe more, he'll have a huge amount of experience that not many amateurs are going to have when they turn pro."

Every collegian Fox has played this season has eyed him a little differently than last year. Even UTC teammates, who call him "Champ" on a regular basis, want to beat him no matter the course or the game.

"He had a lot of success dumped on his head in a hurry," Guhne said. "I think the instant fame was a struggle. And the instant expectations, too. Every tournament we go to, it's brought up that we have the U.S. Amateur champion.

"That fame, that notoriety, not only puts an expectation in his own head, but for everybody else. He's not allowed to have a bad round anymore."

Lounging in the apartment without a shirt is still acceptable behavior in private. So are the "goofy" games he plays with teammates -- and other college-kid behavior.

Outside the apartment and beyond the gates of the UTC practice facility, however, Fox has to be a responsible and respectable adult, as if he were employed by a white-collar business.

"Off the course, he's been asked to grow up in ways a lot of college guys don't have to," Guhne said. "It's one thing to speak in public. It's another thing to have a conversation with Arnold Palmer."

FAMILY COMPETITION

Basketball is in Fox's genes. His father, Alan, played professional basketball overseas, and his mother, Maureen, played at LIU-Brooklyn and loves watching the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan.

When Steven returned from Turkey, all jet-lagged and weary from eating primarily "Snickers and peaches," he tried to readjust to America by playing H-O-R-S-E with UTC assistant strength coach Jeff Andrews.

Fox could run with any intramural team on campus, but when Andrews sat in a chair and sank a shot from the 3-point line, Fox said, "I don't have the upper-body strength for that." Andrews won the game by underhanding a shot off the side wall of Chattem Practice Facility on his first try.

Golf became Fox's first love at an early age. His dad still has the ball from Jacksonville (N.C.) Country Club, where Steven made his first true par at 5 years old. It's on a shelf in Alan's office.

The competitive nature of Steven's parents has been passed on to his older sister Ashley and younger sister Kristen, who just turned 16. They compete at almost everything.

And they wager within the family, from deciding on dinner to doing the dishes.

"Ask Alan how many dishes he's done lately," Maureen said, referring to beanbag games on the patio.

The biggest wager came before Steven struck one shot at the U.S. Amateur. Alan told him before the tournament that if he won, he could own the yellow Nissan 370z sports car. Steven now drives it every time he returns home.

Lessons have been learned with the Fox family competition.

Alan recalled playing in a basketball game in which his team trailed by 11 points with just over one minute to go. His team pulled within two points with a few seconds to go, but the other team had to inbound the ball. The elder Fox stole the pass and hit a 3-pointer for the victory.

Steven, about 11 at the time, was present.

"In the celebration I saw that Steven was hugging me and my leg," Alan said. "I asked, 'Did you think we would win?' And he said, 'No.' It meant a lot to me that he was there.

"And we tried to pass that attitude to golf -- never give up."

The Foxes' middle child may have brought home the biggest trophy in American amateur golf, but he's just another member of the family in their two-story house.

"He's been a good brother," Kristen said. "He comes to my soccer games. When I was littler, we'd play pingpong and he'd give me 20 points even though we played to 21."

BLUE, GOLD AND GREEN

This is a historic week for Fox, Mocs golf and the university as he becomes technically the first UTC golfer to play the Masters. It was the University of Chattanooga when Gibby Gilbert played there before going on to five Masters.

"This has changed our lives for a very long time," Alan Fox said. "We had no idea, back in August, how true it is that his life has changed. It's changed for the good."

Fox has a following in his chase for the green jacket -- from former chancellor Brown to golfers in the men's grill at courses around Chattanooga and Hendersonville, to somebody who also will be participating at Augusta National.

"He's a Moc, and I'm a Moc, and this outweighs anything a Moc has ever done. He's doing the dream," said former UTC golfer Kip Henley, who played on mini-tours and now is a caddie for PGA Tour pro Brian Gay.

"He's doing my dream, living my dream, playing that sucker," said Henley, who won "Big Break II" on The Golf Channel. "It will be cool to watch Steven live the dream that I and millions of other have. It's just cool."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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