Ross Fisher: 'Now I know I can mix it with the big boys'

The Brian Viner Interview: Five years ago he was still an amateur – but at the last US Open, he almost won. The 29-year-old looks back on a dogged rise to the top
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The Independent Online

The US Open began yesterday at Pebble Beach in California with European golf's least-wanted statistic now a round 40 years old; since 1970 the handsome trophy has been lifted by South Africans, Australians, an Argentine and a New Zealander, and of course plenty of Americans, but not since Tony Jacklin prevailed in Minnesota has a European golfer been able to call himself US Open Champion.

Last year at the formidable Bethpage Black in New York, however, Ross Fisher came close. And the following month at Turnberry he briefly led our own Open Championship on the final day, a fleeting charge that whipped up all kinds of excitement because he had stated categorically that, with his wife Jo at home in Surrey nine months pregnant with their first child, he would down clubs the second he heard she'd gone into labour and dash to a nearby airfield, even if the text message arrived with him a stroke clear on the 18th tee. The three most worthless words in sport are "might have been", but still, what an annus mirabilis 2009 might have been for Fisher. In the event he finished tied 13th at Turnberry, and fifth at Bethpage. Later in the year he won the Volvo World Match Play Championship, beating Anthony Kim 4&3 in the final. More significantly for him, baby Eve arrived safely on the Saturday after the Open. "Jo managed to hang on and I didn't," he says, smiling.

At the bar at Wisley Golf Club, not far from his home in Cheam, and shortly before he is due to fly to California, 29-year-old Fisher reflects on an eventful 2009 but also ponders his current form. In the world's top 20 at the end of last year, he now stands 38th. Not bad for a fellow who had a handicap of 16 at the age of 14, and didn't turn pro until he was 24, but not nearly good enough by the standards he sets himself now.

First, though, let's go back 12 months. Last year's US Open was only the second he'd contested, and it unfolded in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, with storms causing suspension of play. Indeed, Fisher was facing a six-foot putt to save par on the second hole of his final round when the dreaded hooter sounded, so it became his first shot the following day. He holed it. And by eagling the long 13th moved to within a shot of the lead. So what was his overwhelming emotion when he left New York? Pleasure at finishing in the top five of a major for the first time, or disappointment having failed to win the thing?

"A bit of both," he says. "But it was good to know that I could really mix it with the big boys." At 6ft 3in, and a prodigious hitter, Fisher deserves to be counted among the big boys. He is also renowned for his accuracy off the tee, an excellent quality to take to a US Open. "But it depends on the course," he says. "I've only played Pebble once, in the AT&T in 2008 when it was soft and wet. This is summertime, so it will be very different."

The last time the US Open was staged at Pebble Beach, in 2000, Tiger Woods famously triumphed by fully 15 shots, Fisher was watching on telly. Later, he got the DVD for Christmas. "I learnt that before the second round, Tiger had taken a couple of balls out of his bag to putt with in his room, and forgot to put them back. So on the course he only had three balls, and he gave one away. Then he hit his tee shot on the last into the ocean. Steve Williams gave him another ball, but only he knew that it was the last one in the bag. If Tiger had hit that one into the ocean, he wouldn't have been able to finish the round."

Listening to this tale, young Fisher was agog. Having earlier in his golfing life tried to model himself on Ernie Els – "it wasn't just his swing, I loved his temperament" – by 1998 he had switched his attentions to Woods, practising relentlessly, and working hard in the gym. "I knew I could succeed," he says, "but I was late progressing in the amateur game. I was still a long way off turning pro."

Already, though, he was a one-man counterblast to the idea that golf is for the middle classes. His mother was a school cleaner, his stepfather a plumber. "He got me into golf when I was three, and later he took me to pub society days. I tried to join Royal Ascot golf club when I was 12, but I didn't get in. Then we heard about a scholarship they were offering at Wentworth for kids who couldn't afford the fees. There were 36 candidates, and Bernard Gallagher [the Wentworth pro] must have seen some potential in me, because he chose me and three others."

It was July 1994, Fisher was 13, and his first official club handicap was 16. By the time he was 16 he was down to six, still no great shakes for a boy intent on a pro career, at least bearing in mind that a near contemporary, a Spaniard named Sergio Garcia, was already good enough to have made the cut in the Mediterranean Open. "I was stuck on six and then five for quite a while," he recalls, "but then I got down to three, two, one, scratch, and the big one was getting into plus figures. I finished my amateur career on plus-four."

What made the difference, getting from six to plus-four? "Really hard work. I was a golf nut, a bit of a golf pervert. I just wanted to be on a golf course all the time. And I had good hand-eye coordination. I played cricket for the county, football for Ascot United, I was good at basketball, but my stepdad encouraged me to focus on golf." When Woods pitched up at the World Match Play at Wentworth in 1998, Fisher had his idol just where he wanted him. "I was working at the range to earn some extra money, and he'd come up and say, 'What's up, guys?' That was a thrill, but I wanted it to be me on the range, having someone collecting balls for me."

Nine years later, not only was this ambition fulfilled, but Fisher's partner in the penultimate group on the final day of the Dubai Desert Classic was... T Woods. "That was a bit surreal. But it was also a pleasure and I learnt a lot from watching him. The main thing was that he wasn't a robot – he skied his tee shot off the first, duffed a chip on 11 – but his mental strength really impressed me. He wasn't playing his best but he still gave himself a chance to win."

He was impressed, too, with Tiger's friendliness. "We chatted all the way round. He told me he was gutted he wasn't going to the Super Bowl. He was good friends with Peyton Manning, who was then with the [Indianapolis] Colts, and his wife had been texting him, saying she was getting ready for the Super Bowl..." It's nice, I venture, to hear a story about Tiger getting wholesome texts from his wife, not saucy ones from nightclub hostesses. "Yeah. I played with him in China two weeks before all that came out, and he was talking about his family. I was shocked."

Nevertheless, does Fisher think some of his fellow pros have been rather sanctimonious with regard to Woods? "Well, we can all judge him. But I still look at him and see a guy I aspire to equal. And now's a good time because he's going through a shaky patch."

So, though, is Fisher himself. By the end of last season he looked certain to feature in this year's Ryder Cup; now he badly needs a win or a few high finishes to force himself back into the reckoning. Is he inspired or frustrated to see four fellow Englishmen currently in the world's top 10? "Again, a bit of both. I feel that I belong where those guys are. And I don't want to rely on a pick from Monty to get in [to the Ryder Cup team]. But if I play myself into some form I hope he'll look at my matchplay record."

That he can tear a field apart in strokeplay is not in doubt; two years ago he led the European Open from start to finish and won by seven shots, from Garcia, on a course – the London Club in Kent – that he'd never seen before he posted a first-round 63. He only played at the encouragement of his wife, Jo, and of course he returned the compliment at Turnberry last year, telling the world that her needs came before his. Would he really have rushed to her side, though, if the Claret Jug had been within reach?

"I would. It was our first child and I wouldn't have missed the birth for anything." Peter Alliss, to name but one, suggested that Fisher would need his head examining if he left the fairways for the maternity ward. "Well, for the first part of my life golf was everything to me, but priorities change. Now, if my family is safe and happy and secure, that's when I can concentrate on my golf." Maybe the Tiger should be learning from him.

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