In early March 2011, Adam Wainwright had “Tommy John” surgery to replace a ligament in his right elbow. For the first time since forever, he was not playing baseball in April when the Masters Tournament came around.

Wainwright took advantage of the opportunity to go to Augusta National and watch the best players in the world compete for one of the most coveted championships in golf. He wasn’t just there to walk among the azaleas., munch on egg salad and fill orders for “Masters” paraphernalia.

Wainwright is a terrific golfer, but he wasn’t there for swing tips, either. He was there to learn, to study how the best players “grind,” to prepare himself for moments like this.

“I wanted to follow golfers for extended amounts of time just to see if they let up,” Wainwright said. “And every single shot, every single putt was like it was the last putt to win the whole thing, or it was like the last shot to win the whole thing … Or it was like the last pitch of the World Series.

“And that’s the focus you have to have when you start. So it’s very similar.”

Wainwright will take the mound tonight with a mulligan. He will focus on a second chance to do something for which he has waited so long, to make a signature World Series start.

In 2011, he could only watch as the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers in dramatic style. In 2006, he was an integral piece of the Cardinals’ world championship. But his role was to caulk a hole left by the breakdown of closer Jason Insringhausen. He did so, as a 25-year-old rookie, with a win and four postseason saves.

But seven years later, he wants to be there from the start and also, if possible, at the end. In this most coveted championship setting, he wants to lead, not follow.

Last Wednesday in Boston, Wainwright and his teammates stumbled badly. There were incidents and accidents, hiccups and high jinks. The Cardinals committed three physical errors, as well as one or two mental mistakes. Wainwright couldn’t fix the card.

He worked five innings, allowed six hits, five runs, three earned. Although there was plenty of blame to go around, Wainwright takes full responsibility for the debacle, which ended in an 8-1 loss in Game 1. As the starting pitcher, he considered it a total eclipse of the art.

“I honestly don’t know why my mechanics were as bad as they were, or my delivery was off as much as it was,” Wainwright said. “I feel like I’ve made a lot of good adjustments to be ready for this next game, to throw some quality pitches. I threw maybe four or five quality pitches the whole time I was pitching (in Game 1). Luckily, to come away with a few runs, it could have been 10 instead of five.”

Wainwright’s ownership is not surprising. As much as any individual on the roster, the Cardinals are a silk-screen of their ace righthander. As much as any, he establishes their personalty, which can be refreshingly diverting and admirably determined, which has them playing for another world championship.

The 6-foot-7 Wainwright is 32 now, a family man, an elite performer in an extremely lucrative industry. But at the core, he still is a big kid playing on a sandlot., playing baseball for all the endearing elements it has to offer, playing for all the right reasons.

He loves the St. Louis environment, embraces his relationship with the city and his teammates. He wants to affect his team the way it affects him. He wants this October to be fun, to be unforgettable.

“It’s one thing to watch it, and that’s cool,” Wainwright said. “But it’s another to be part of it.”

When Wainwright came to the Cardinals, the pitching staff had a standard-bearer in Chris Carpenter. The former Cy Young winner comes from a more predatory place, serious and savage. Carpenter gives other pitchers on the staff a reference point, a competitive code and professional prospectus.

When it became obvious over the winter Carpenter’s participation would be a long shot at best, Wainwright realized he would now be the lead horse., shouldering the responsibility for a group of young, inexperienced arms.

At first, he was uncertain of the process, where to find the leadership handbook, how to walk in Carpenter’s cleats. Then he came to a realization.