They’re a golfing ‘Little and Large’. At 6ft 6in in his stocking soles, Chris Wood will stick out on Archerfield Links today like the lighthouse on nearby Fidra Island, which is believed to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Matthew Fitzpatrick is listed in the European Tour media guide as standing at 5ft 9in, but that would seem to be erring on the generous side. Put it this way, he reminds you more of the diminutive Ian Woosnam than the lofty Sandy Lyle.
Both are men on missions heading into the Aberdeen Asset Management Paul Lawrie Match Play, which gets under way on the East Lothian coast this morning. Having put in the spadework over the past 11 months – Fitzpatrick has won the British Masters and the Nordea Masters while Wood claimed the PGA Championship at Wentworth – the two Englishman occupy automatic spots in Darren Clarke’s European team for next month’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine with just three counting events remaining.
Of the two, 28-year-old Bristolian Wood has more elbow room as he sets out in one of 32 first-round ties against Australian Brett Rumford. He may have done enough already, in fact, to secure his spot for the Minnesota match. Which could be just as well because the three-time European Tour winner has been struggling recently with a neck injury and isn’t planning to play in either the Czech Masters or Made in Denmark tournament after this one. “I’m getting married on the Saturday of the Czech Masters and have my stag party in Dublin next weekend,” revealed Wood, who, along with Fitzpatrick, helped Clarke, pictured, start his captaincy career with a commanding victory in the EurAsia Cup in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year. “I have put the Made in Denmark on standby just in case and, if I have to play I will, but that would probably leave me asking Bethany for a divorce before we are even married, so I’d like to tie it all up this week.”
Had the Ryder Cup even been on his mind when the date was set? “I did tell her parents to perhaps take out wedding insurance just in case,” he replied, laughing. “I sort of knew what I was playing in up to that point, and I thought I wouldn’t play in the Czech Masters anyway and knew it freed up Denmark, if I had to play in it. Looking at it now, you could think, what was wrong with a couple of weeks later. But hopefully it won’t get to that.” And the honeymoon? “It will be a couple of weeks after the Race to Dubai finishes – golf comes first,” he declared.
The aforementioned neck injury forced Wood to withdraw from last month’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart without being able to hit a ball in anger. Even though he made it to the starting gate in the Open at Royal Troon the following week, he only lasted 12 holes. “Obviously July wasn’t a great month for me with my neck,” he admitted. “I tried to give it a go at the Open but, as I was warming up on the Thursday, they had a big TrackMan TV on the range and, due to the fact I was only able to make half backswings, it showed I was only carrying my driver 190 yards, which is embarrassing. But then last Wednesday at the US PGA, I didn’t have any pain when I played nine holes, so hopefully I’m over that now.”
As the top seed and highest-ranked player in the field, Wood will be expected to beat Rumford. According to the title favourite, though, he has landed a potential banana skin for his opening test. “I’ve got quite a tough game against Rummy,” insisted Wood. “There’s quite a lot of run offs around the greens on the golf course [the Fidra Links]. We all know Rummy’s got one of the best short games on Tour, so it will feel like he’s never out of the hole. It will be a good one to win tomorrow, then get a little bit of momentum building throughout the week and hopefully go on a good run. Everybody is saying that I’m there [in the battle for those nine automatic Ryder Cup spots], but for me, until it’s set in stone and there’s a line under the qualifying, I’m not. I don’t want any intensity to drop, so I am really just giving everything trying to make the team.”
Should Fitzpatrick, who faces Ryder Cup vice captain Thomas Bjorn in the first-round, do that, it would be some achievement at the age of 21. It was only last year that he was a rookie on the European Tour, yet he goes about his business, both on and off the course, like a seasoned veteran. Three missed cuts in a row prior to finishing 49th in the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol showed he is feeling the Ryder Cup heat. At the same time, though, the Sheffield lad seems to have an inner calmness that makes you believe he can get to the finishing line where he needs to be. “I think so,” replied Fitzpatrick when asked if Clarke, inset above left, had been right when he suggested recently that the Hazeltine hopeful had been guilty of trying too hard as he made early exits in the French Open, Scottish Open and the Open before returning to form with a 67 in the last round of the season’s final major on Sunday in New Jersey. “I don’t know whether he can factually prove that, but it’s certainly been the case. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet or anything like that, but I really feel like I work pretty hard at my game, try to do the right things schedule-wise and try to be as good as I can be. Sometimes, though, trying too hard just holds you back. Sometimes when you want to achieve something so much, it almost can get in the way and I think that’s been the case with me. I’ve just got to try and relax over these next three or four weeks
“I’d be delighted obviously to make the team and it would certainly give perspective of how far I’ve come. It’s happened so fast that I think you almost expect it to keep going that way, and it’s not true. I’ve had a win this year, but, in all honesty, I’ve not had a good year.”
Really? Making three of the four cuts in the majors, including a seventh-place finish in the Masters, two wins in the Ryder Cup qualifying campaign, a second, three thirds and almost having a 59 would surely suggest otherwise.
“When you put it like that, it sounds pretty good,” he admitted, with his boyish smile. “I’m sure all golfers are the same, but yo u get stuck in the present; and you don’t think about, A, what you’ve done before, and what you know you can achieve; and B, what you’re working towards in the future. I think that’s certainly me. The last eight, nine weeks are just being reactive to how I’ve been playing, when I feel like the game has not been far away. I’ve not changed anything or anything, but sort of getting down on myself, missing the cut by one, not having the rub of the green, missing a couple short ones. All things that if you get on the right side and it all goes your way, before you know it, you’ve had three great results. Hopefully for me, after last week, I can just get on a bit of a run now and make the final push for the Ryder Cup.”