What is it about Royal Birkdale and amateur dramatics? Most famously, of course, when Justin Rose chipped in at the last to tie for fourth in the 1998 Open Championship but also Chris Wood. Nine years ago, on the event’s last visit to the Southport venue, the big Bristolian also enjoyed the thrill of finishing to the fore – a share of sixth spot in his case – in golf’s oldest major. “If I can avoid the trousers and the hair, I’d happily watch it all the time,” he said, laughing, of a DVD from that event.
Drumoig’s Connor Syme is among five amateurs in next week’s line-up and there’s every chance that it will prove an event to remember for at least one player in that group. “Historically, the amateurs have done well there,” acknowledged Wood, who missed out on a pay-day worth £180,000 due to him being ineligible for prize money. “I actually went to the 1998 Open and watched Rose. I was 11 and I remember it very clearly. I remember watching Nick Faldo and Mark O’Meara. They printed out the scorecards and I remember getting Tiger Woods’ and taking it into school boasting that I had his signature. If juniors get that kind of experience, they’d be in the game for life.”
Wood came through final qualifying at nearby Hillside to secure his spot in 2008, having won the Welsh Stroke Play Championship at Conwy earlier that season. “The first tee was as nervous as I’ve ever been,” he recalled. “I was off at about 3pm, so I had all morning to wait. Most folk were hitting irons off the tee, but I just wanted to get something on it, so I got the driver out. I hit as good a shot as I could have and I was off and running.”
He opened with a 75 before adding a 70 and 73 to sit joint ninth, six shots behind the leader, Greg Norman, heading into the final circuit. “It was pretty emotional stuff on the last day,” he added, reflecting on a closing 72 as he ended up seven shots behind Harrington as the Irishman made a successful defence of the Claret Jug. “I was going nicely. I think I birdied nine with (Ian) Poulter and we were right in there. I got to the 11th and they had moved the tee up because of the weather some 80 yards. My dad was my caddie and we didn’t have a f****** clue what to do. I was like, ‘oh well, I’ll just hit a driver again’. I hit it into the trouble and made 5 and then on the next I hit it in the trap and made 4 and that derailed my challenge really. I was still where I wanted to be, winning the Silver Medal (for leading amateur).
“The thought of winning the Open never crossed my mind. Beforehand my coach was saying, ‘you can win this, you can win this’. He was good at instilling that belief in me. He’s done that since I was 13. I just wanted to win the Silver Medal. It was good because there was another amateur, Tom Sherreard, in the final round, too, and he was pushing me and pushing. That helped keep me up the leaderboard. I was looking back where he was and not the big names up the top.”
A professional by then, Wood tied for third behind Stewart Cink the following year and is now heading back to Birkdale with his sights firmly set on getting in the mix again next weekend.
“I’ve got loads of memories from 2008 at is was start of my career and will always be the best week of my golfing life,” said the 29-year-old, who won the BMW PGA Championship in 2016, when he also played in the Ryder Cup. “I have the DVD, but I very rarely watch it. I’ll probably get my wife to bring it up next week. There’s no harm in watching it, maybe how I played one hole or something just to get some insight again. The weather was tough that week, but that didn’t bother me one bit. It’s only when you are on Tour for a couple of years that you start picking at things. You’re not as carefree.
“It mattered then, but you’re fresh. Nowadays you are on the wheel of professional golf. In 2008 it was my first taste of the big stage and the Open and what it meant. It meant everything to me. I have played in six or seven Opens and it still means a lot. But I have experience now, I know what is coming. Back then, everything was new and exciting.
“I really fancy the Open, whatever course it is on. You always get good feelings, particularly at Birkdale. I did well as an amateur and everything started from there. Going back, you start remembering little things and shots you hit. I know I can do it in the Open, having been in the mix twice. I can get myself in that position and I have to take the chance the next time it comes along.”