MEDINAH, Ill. – It was a few years ago when on a casual walk around the golf course at yet another weekly PGA Tour stop the occasion presented itself to stop and watch Ian Poulter play a few holes.
Nothing extraordinary happened, which means not a thing. But on several shots, the sound following a Poulter strike was different. Not crisp. Not solid. Not fluid ball contact. It was curiously different than the sound that came from the players with whom Poulter was playing. Later, this scene was relayed to a prominent swing coach who has been around the pro game for decades.
“The greatest thing about Poulter?” he asked rhetorically. “He actually thinks he’s good.”
He meant this as the highest possible compliment and not a slight at all. His point was, Poulter might do the most with the least of anyone in the pro game, and hopefully he doesn’t take any offense at that. This is a man who served as an assistant pro at Chesfield Downs Golf Club in his native England, telling whoever would listen that he was destined to play professionally. Of course, he was perhaps a 4-handicap at the time, so who listened? And, if they did, who didn’t laugh?
Then again, who is getting the last laugh every day?
The irrepressible Poulter, of course. He’s 36, a millionaire many times over thanks to his golf achievements on the PGA Tours in Europe and the U.S., owner of homes in England and Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., a businessman with his clothing line, and consistently one of the world’s top-ranked golfers.
And, oh, yes, there’s this: He’s the spiritual leader for Europe in this Ryder Cup business.
Don’t believe it? Don’t think a guy who claims just one PGA Tour victory (the 2010 Accenture Match Play Championship) can be given such lofty stature? Don’t think that a guy who is No. 26 in the world can be considered above teammates who are ranked first (Rory McIlroy), third (Luke Donald), fourth (Lee Westwood) or fifth (Justin Rose)?
Well, you don’t quite understand the dynamics of this Ryder Cup landscape then, because in Poulter, they trust.
“Poulter has a claim to be No. 1,” Padraig Harrington said, but brush aside the shock, because the Irishman was talking in terms of the Ryder Cup. Having been an integral part of six straight European teams, Harrington possesses a keen understanding of why his side has won six of the past eight Ryder Cup matches; the first thing you do is check world rankings and egos at the door.
Clearly, other teammates are higher ranked and offer superior resumes, but if he were to put out a singles lineup, Harrington would opt for Poulter to lead off. Not because Poulter provides the greatest talent, but because he supplies endless confidence, which filters down.
“He brings belief. He really feels like he’s going to win his game,” said Rose, who paired with Poulter to win two of their three matches in 2008 at Valhalla. “He’s one of the guys who wants the ball when the clock’s running down. Obviously, all of us want that – or we think we want that. But how many (of us) really, really, really want that when it comes down to it? Ian does.”
Having secured the winning point in Europe’s overwhelming victory in 2004 at Oakland Hills, Poulter was still stinging by the team loss in 2008 (he didn’t make the team in 2006), when the 2010 match came down to the crucial singles session on Monday. Captain Colin Montgomerie penciled Poulter in to go fifth, drawn against Matt Kuchar, and while on the practice range that morning in Wales, the Englishman delivered a comment that has earned him the nickname “The Postman” inside team circles.
“He said (to a TV reporter), ‘I will deliver,’ and he’s been known as ‘The Postman’ ever since,” Graeme McDowell said.
It was a dominating 5-and-4 win for Poulter over Kuchar, and was crucial in Europe’s victory.
“I wasn’t thinking about the consequences when I said it,” Poulter said. “I said it for a simple reason: I felt my game was good enough. When you sit back and look at it, of course it’s going to fire the other team (members) up. I mean, I went out there and delivered.”
Ah, yes, The Postman. He came, he delivered, which is no surprise. Consider that Poulter is 8-3 in his three Ryder Cups, including 3-0 in singles.
But Rose considers it a microcosm of Poulter’s career, because surrounded by dozens of colleagues who entered pro golf as heralded juniors or collegiate stars, the former club pro was greeted with no such fanfare. That hard-road, determined focus is what his friends and teammates embrace when it comes to Poulter, for whom they have great admiration.
Perhaps no one more than Rose can appreciate the progression Poulter has made. Though he is five years younger than his fellow Englishman, Rose met Poulter on the Challenge Tour and remembers when both were alternates into the French Open, where they started talking at the chipping green. It was friendship at first sight, you could say, and they agreed to share a hotel room to cut down on travel costs, because money was tight.
“He brought me out of my shell. We were very good for each other. I was shy,” Rose said, not needing to finish the other half of the equation – meaning, Poulter was anything but. Oh, how Poulter was loud, as was the morning wake-up.
“The music would be blaring (in the hotel room). Ian was ramping himself up. But we both really developed together and graduated together onto the tour. We began to break through together.”
Today, Justin and his wife, Kate, and their two children live within the confines of Lake Nona in Orlando, where Poulter and his wife, Katie, and their four children reside. McDowell lives there, too, and the friendship has solidified through the years and so, too, the respect, because Rose understands the “overachiever” label that Poulter might wear.
“He’s convinced himself, for sure. He talked himself into winning golf tournaments,” Rose said. “There’ll be certain times of the year where he will need a win, and he’ll produce. He’s got that ability to get in ‘the zone.’ He slows down under pressure where a lot of people speed up under pressure. He feels very comfortable in the situation. That’s it, really. He believes in himself.”
And he most certainly believes in this Ryder Cup stuff. But why? And how?
“I don’t really know, to be honest with you. I just love this event more than any other event in the world,” Poulter said. “I get very excited to play. I get very proud to put this shirt on and have that crest on my chest. I want to give it my all. I just love it. I was transfixed in ’93 (when he went to The Belfry and pitched a tent to walk to the competition), watching my first Ryder Cup, and things haven’t changed since.”
His mates have noticed, which is why in Poulter, they trust.
“You always feel as if he’s got your back out there. You feed off of that,” Rose said. “There’s no secret to it. Hell, America’s going to feel he’s beatable (because) it’s not like he’s invincible out there. None of us are. But he is going to bring his best. He’s not going to leave anything on the table.”
He will, however, more than likely show off what is called “the Poulter strut,” his fast-paced, straight-standing walk exuding confidence, though his competition might consider it to be the steps of a cocky player.
“El cock-eroo,” McDowell said, laughing, conceding that it shows off that side of Poulter that his mates embrace but might prompt his opponents to cringe.
“I can’t do (the strut). No one struts like Poultsy. He’s fantastic, isn’t he? He gets the Ryder Cup in a very, very good way. He gets fired up and charged up.”