The following abridged excerpt from ‘Cruel School: The 40 Year History of the European Tour Q School’ by Ross Biddiscombe chronicles how new BMW PGA Championship winner Chris Wood nearly missed out on his first chance to become a pro on the European Tour.
In this chapter, Chris, who has just turned pro after winning the Silver Medal at the Open Championship in 2008, is trying to progress from the Second Stage of Q School.
Second Stage is an odd golf tournament. It is full of both hope and tragic possibility; even the best players feel exposed to an unexpected tumble here. Just 20 golfers will proceed out of a field of over 80, so it will only take a couple of unfortunate miscues or bad swings to miss out. These are the unsaid words in Chris Wood’s mind.
The good news is that his father, Richard has traveled with him in support. He watches his remarkable son shoot a respectable 2 under par 70 that is already good enough for tied 9th. Three more rounds like that will see Chris through with ease, according to my calculations. High winds had caused problems for some players on the opening day, but Chris knew that it was important to get off to a solid start; it is even something he has been working on with a psychologist.
“I’ve struggled in the first rounds of tournaments before and I didn’t want to do it here because it’s such an important week. I’ve had two days of practice here and I’m not nervous,” he says.
After interviewing Chris, I met Richard for the first time. Having seen his son turn professional, sign with a top management company and employ an experienced caddie (Gordon Faulkner), Richard knows that his son needs to grow up by himself. It will be a very interesting week walking the course with him, especially because I will hear stories about Chris directly from his father.
Richard’s demeanour can probably be best described as in a state of controlled nervousness. He marches ahead before each drive in case of an errant shot and stays well in the background on the greens to avoid unnecessary eye contact with Chris. It is a hugely difficult position to be in – wanting to help, but knowing you must not – yet I’m pretty sure Chris is glad his dad is around and it is all made right by Richard’s intelligent reading of the big picture.
“The Open was a dream that just kept getting better and better. It was wonderful for me (his caddie at Royal Birkdale), let alone Chris. But afterwards, he needed another person on his bag, he needed to grow up, be his own man.
“The first few pro events were a bit of a whirlwind for him, but he’s learned to relax. The amateur tournaments seemed important at the time and they were, but he’s a pro now and this is his job.
“He’s learned that already and I’ve noticed a difference in him, even at home around the house. The good news is that he’s a better player already for having turned pro.”
I have met a few fathers-of-golfers during Q School, but there is no sign at all of this one living his dream vicariously via his son.
Richard has love of golf that is something he passed on to his son. It started when Chris was a toddler. By age four, Richard’s only son had been bought a plastic set of golf clubs and balls from The Early Learning Centre and nothing could stop the youngster from practicing his swing, even inadvertently one day smashing a clubhead into the face of his sister Abi and bloodying her nose with an impressive follow-through.
By age eight, the son was caddying for the father at Long Ashton Golf Club where Richard was a member. By the time Chris turned nine, the boy was playing a little on-course golf, but football seemed to be his first love. Then, much to Richard’s delight, events took a different turn.
“Chris came up to the club one beautiful summer evening and we headed down the 1st hole together. We’d done this many times before, but the course was particularly immaculate that evening, very lush and green.
“I can still recall the moment vividly. We got to the green and Chris suddenly noticed all the lushness around him and I saw his eyes light up in wonder. It was as if he’d seen heaven and, from that moment on, he was hooked on the game.”
By age 12, Chris’s handicap was into single figures and he began making a name for himself in local events around Bristol. Then there was the serious knee injury that ended any nascent football career (Bristol City had shown some interest in him, signing him to their academy at one point), so Chris could devote himself to golf. Under the guidance of local golf pro Paul Mitchell, there followed some amateur glory.
Richard has plenty of stories about Chris marching through the local amateur ranks and, the older he got, the more obvious it became to Richard that his son might just be something special. Now Q School is the beginning of Chris’s understanding of the business end of golf; the carefree amateur has to be replaced by the grinding professional.
As the fourth round of Second Stage begins, Chris is still 2 under and tied 15th. It is a good position, but eight players are one shot behind him. His chances of progress to Final Stage are in the balance. I’m convinced Chris will get through, but golf is not always predictable and talent does not always get its just reward.
The initial 9 holes of round four are not good; Chris is 1 over par for the round and suddenly failure is a real possibility. There are no scoreboards to tell him how his rivals are performing, but instinctively he knows that the next few holes are the most important of his life. Richard is somehow holding onto his poise with remarkable strength. If this was my son, I’d be in bits.
Off the 10th tee Chris’s 2-iron flies straight-and-true. He and Gordon march confidently to their ball and begin the normal process of checking the yardage and the wind direction; at just under 200 yards from the flag, it looks like a 6-iron shot. But something is wrong. Gordon is ferreting around in his bag and Richard guesses what’s going on: the 6-iron is not there. Somehow, amid all the tension that Q School delivers, the 6-iron has been left back on the 7th tee.
Chris Wood’s first caddie as a professional, Gordon Faulkner.
There some occasions (not many, I grant you) when a pro would see the funny side at this point. In fact, Richard even remembered mislaying his son’s sand wedge once during the South of England Amateur Championship at Walton Heath.
This, however, is not a mid-level amateur event, but the launching of Chris’s professional career. Had it been an early round, then it would not look so significant, but as Chris stands on the 10th fairway, his round is in danger of collapsing and his club of choice is not available.
He cannot afford another mistake and a tough shot onto a water-guarded green just got tougher. If Chris loses his cool or drops a shot now then any chance of catch-up birdies will be slim and a Tour Card will disappear as well.
So it is to Chris’s immense credit that he takes an extra breath, remains calm and chooses to hit a soft 5-iron rather than a full 6. He finds the green and eventually holes a tricky 3ft putt for par. As his threeball makes its way to the 11th tee, Chris walks alone pouring over his yardage book in deep concentration; he needs to focus on each forthcoming hole and completely forget about the missing club.
Ross Biddiscombe with Chris Wood in Bristol during one of the author’s book signings.
This is a good sign and Gordon is experienced enough to give him the required space. The caddie has sent word via an official in a nearby buggy that a club has gone missing and the 6-iron is duly handed back on the 11th fairway.
For golfers of every standard, the game is a series of small tests to either pass or fail. Sometimes, you miss an early 4-footer and seem to face the same putt again and again. Other times the test can be something more subtle like the temporary loss of a club (I’ve done it on several occasions myself).
The point is that here at Second Stage of Q School, the tests are large ones. Chris could easily have berated Gordon, lost his temper and stomped around for 10 minutes at a crucial point in his round. The fact that he coped so decisively said a great deal about him.
Eventually, Chris shoots another score of 70 and is off to Final Stage. Everyone on Team Wood that day at Second Stage of Q School let out a sigh of relief, but Richard was the one who’d done it all and seen it all with his son. He summed up the mood perfectly as we walked off the final green. “There’s always a story with Chris,” he said and we all smiled in agreement.
Just over one week later, Chris Wood went on to gain his Tour Card at Final Stage of the 2008 Q School and is now a three-time European Tour champion.
National Club Golfer readers can take advantage of a special offer to buy a signed copy of Cruel School for just £10. Go to www.golfontheedge.co.uk and click on the Buy Now button in the PGA Special Offer box. Cruel School is also available as an eBook on www.amazon.co.uk.