We are in an era where top-level sportsmen and women are conditioned to think of every match, tournament or fixture as merely ‘the next one’. ‘Treat them all the same’ is the mantra ingrained in their brain. This ‘one game at a time’ mentality has seeped into golf, to the extent you now hear some players insisting they don’t think about the Ryder Cup until the week of the matches ticks round.
This might well be a white lie, part of a grand psychological masterplan to trick their own minds, but it appears bewildering and frankly dispiriting to those of us who avidly watch sport; why are we more animated about these events than those actually taking part?
So when the ranks of the conditioned and brainwashed are broken, it is strangely uplifting that the sportsman or woman in question shares your anticipation.
A return to Augusta National after a six-year absence would, you’d imagine, be cause for such ebullience. In fact, plenty would play it down – but Chris Wood is not one.
Standing on the practice range ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic, a full two months before the Masters, the imposing Bristolian makes no effort to contain his excitement. The smile rarely disappears from his face as he discusses a range of Masters topics, the promptness with which he begins his answers suggesting they are topics he has already mulled over himself.
He is quick to reveal plans are already in place for who is going, where they are staying, and who is doing the cooking. His caddie for the par 3 is sorted. A WhatsApp group is set up. Arrangements to watch Nicklaus, Palmer and Player on Thursday morning are established. He doesn’t just know the hole he really wants to eagle, he knows the precise picture he wants of him playing it to gaze at ad infinitum.
Wait until the week of the tournament before starting to think about it? Hardly. Wood hasn’t stopped thinking about going back to Augusta since his debut in 2010.
His enthusiasm is a legacy of childhood evenings ingesting with wonderment the sounds, colours and drama of Augusta Sunday.
“The first one I can truly remember is Tiger’s win in 1997 – that is the first one that is clear to me,” he reveals. “I think I was 10. Since then I can always remember how each one was one. It always produces amazing moments.
“Obviously before that Europe had great success, with Faldo winning the year before but unfortunately I missed watching that era.
“I used to go into school absolutely shattered on a Monday morning after the Masters each year. But my teachers knew why, because they’d been watching it too. And I certainly didn’t mind the odd tired day at school so I could watch the last round of the Masters.”
His eyes noticeably widen – as you imagine they would have done as a teenager in the West Country marvelling at Woods, Olazabal et al triumphing in the mystical land of Augusta National – as the 28-year-old continues to reminisce with reverence.
“While you’re watching it, you’re thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool to go there?’
“When you are playing amateur golf and even club golf it is one of those dreams you have. A guy I used to play with from my club in Bristol, used to say to me ‘if you ever get into the Masters I want to caddie for you’. It never worked out – when you get there you want your normal caddie to be with you – but it’s just one of those things you say.
“My first invitation from 2010 is framed and on show at home. Getting your head round that it is the Masters is the hard thing to do – I think because the course itself is almost off limits. We can all play Birkdale or Troon – although to me the Open is still the No 1 Major – but because of what Augusta is as a club, it is almost out of bounds to most players.
“To get invited to go and play in the Masters, for your first one or two, is very special. You’ve got those dreams from 14 or 15.”
Within seven years of playing out ‘those dreams’, they had become reality. A fairytale charge on the storied last day of the 2009 Open at Turnberry secured third place and with it an invitation to the following year’s Masters.
With barely 30 professional tournaments-worth of experience, Wood was still the wide-eyed boy from Bristol when he arrived in Georgia. The pencil-thin 6ft 6in looked like a raw recruit, with bundles of ginger hair escaping from beneath his cap in McIlroyesque fashion, and he admits he played like one.
“People told me before my debut that there were so many spots where you can’t hit it… and I found a few of them last time!
“I nailed a drive down the fairway of the 1st then hit a nine iron to six inches. I holed the putt for birdie and I thought ‘this is alright…
“Then I hit quite a nice drive down the 2nd, although it was a bit of a pull. It caught a tree, which kicked it left into the trees. I went for a career 4-iron, but it hit a tree and went into a hazard. A drop. And an eight. Suddenly, it’s bit me in the bum.
“From being one under par after one I was two over after two. I’m 20 years old, it’s my first Masters… what do you do? My head was spinning like it probably never has before or since as a professional. My tournament was probably over right there; it was over in a flash because of one slightly bad shot that led to some others.”
Wood adjusts his polo shirt on each shoulder in that fidgety way of tennis player Rafa Nadal. Perhaps he is wincing at the memory of his naivety en route to 78, 76. But if he is, he does not appear intimidated by another crack at fabled Augusta. Rather, he is relishing the chance to prosper rather than perish – and put to use the nous he has gained from the comfort of his living room.
“Since 2010 I’ve watched every year on Sky and they get Jack Nicklaus in on a Wednesday night to do the hole-by-hole,” reveals the two-time tour winner.
“He goes through six key shots and one of them is actually the tee shot on the 2nd that led to my eight six years ago.
“So I have learned a lot even though I haven’t been for six years just by listening to what Jack Nicklaus has had to say.
“I hoped I’d be back one day so wanted to be in better shape to do myself more justice. Now I can put that knowledge – from the man who probably knows it better than anyone else – to good use.”
His extra insight extends to the infamous greens, reflecting candidly on what went wrong in 2010 to give an original verdict on what makes them so frighteningly exacting.
“You are ready for the quickness of the greens because everyone builds up the speed of them. But I was surprised when I went there: they are phenomenally quick, but what took me more by surprise were the slopes, not necessarily the speed. The slopes really threw me – I couldn’t quite get my head round them.
“But I know that now… it is more a case of getting your eye in, working out that there is 10 foot of break on a 20ft putt.
“Last time I built up the speed of the greens too much in my mind. You can’t be scared of them. The greens in Dubai, for example, are as quick as Augusta – they are just a lot flatter than Augusta.”
Not being overawed is a predictable urgency for any player new to Augusta, or indeed any Major week.
Wood admits he was under Augusta’s spell in 2010 – frankly, if he had denied as much one would scarcely have believed him – and, while he feels prepared for his return, he is honest enough to confirm that a Major week is not in fact just like any other.
“There is definitely a balance between trying to treat it like a normal week and lapping it all up,” says the man who was T5 in the 2008 Open while still an amateur, thus winning the Silver Medal.
“The first time I was probably overawed by it. ‘It’s the Masters!’ you’re thinking. You’re thinking about all the things we’ve talked about already, all the memories, the dreams and the expectations of what it will be like. It can have an affect on you.
“Even their unique little rules make it more special somehow: the patrons, as they call them, can’t run; and if you buy one of those seats and leave it by a green and come back to it three hours later it will still be there untouched, which is incredible in this day and age. It all just adds to the prestige and the myth; there’s no tournament like it.
“Little things like playing the 12th live with you. You see on TV that the 12th tee has thousands of people behind it, but then you walk over the bridge and round to the green… and there are just the six of you. Three players and three caddies. Not another soul. It’s so quiet. It’s the same on the 13th tee, it’s so out the way.
“It is just one more unique aspect but hopefully this time I can block it out a bit more. Six years on I have more experience and I am a better player. Each year since the Masters I have improved as a player. But you can never be certain what will happen there.
“A Major week definitely feels bigger. Players probably tend to prepare slightly differently. It will be busier on a Monday and even though that can be for various reasons – travelling and so on – there is definitely a different feel to it. It just seems to be more serious. Every week on tour everyone is trying their hardest… but there is definitely a different feel.”
For all Wood’s admirable openness and innocent excitement, the difference between us and him is that the long-awaited week in April is more than entertainment for him. His ingenuous enthusiasm is welcome but, come April 7, he will be going to work when he is chauffeured down Magnolia Lane. Determining what a good week looks like is not easy.
“Top 16 I think and invited back for the next year; given it is my second year, that would be a good result. There’s no point saying I can go and win the Masters – of course I could – but realistically for me I feel I need more experience of that sort of event, but I’d like to think I can contend.
“Round there we have seen so many years when someone has come from the sixth or seventh last group out and suddenly eagled 13, birdied or eagled 15 and maybe picked up another shot or two and suddenly theoretically pick up five or six shots – you’re never out of it at Augusta. You’ve just got to put yourself in position to be able to do that.
“People have said to me my game is suited to America with my high ball flight, but I prefer to fade it and everyone also says Augusta suits drawers.
“Jack Nicklaus did OK though. I wouldn’t say it suits or doesn’t suit me; I just need to feel comfortable this time as I never really managed that on my debut.”
Helping him do that will be family and friends. The monklike existience preferred by some players is not for Wood. He believes playing well can still mean enjoying the experience with those closest to him.
“Dad caddied for me in the par 3 last time but my fi ancee Bethany is going to do it this year,” he says with a grin. “She won’t be hitting any shots though…
“My dad doesn’t show much emotion but I’m sure he is excited I am going back. If it was my lad playing at Augusta, I’d be pretty excited for him.
“The tickets you get go pretty quickly. As well as Bethany and my mum and dad, a family friend is coming who is a very, very handy chef. So he is coming for the week but I said he has to be our chef.
“Friends of mine are coming over too, but staying elsewhere. They’ve set up a group chat for us and the picture of the invite from Augusta National is the image we all see.”
The guy wearing a brand-new Green Jacket as he leaves Augusta on April 10 will have enjoyed his week of Masters 2016 the most, but Chris Wood won’t be far behind.