PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s unsurprising how often the social media firing squad takes aim at Ian Poulter, given how much ammunition he provides them. After all, nothing raises the hackles of Have-Nots quite like Have-Yachts exhibiting pride in the trappings of their success, and Poulter isn’t bashful about showing off his Ferrari collection or private jet.
He’s thin-skinned, prone to engaging Twitter warriors. There’s the braggadocio, too. A decade ago he famously declared that someday it would be just “me and Tiger” at the top, and you know he probably believed the same thing way back when he won his first event, the Open de Cote d’Ivoire on the European Challenge Tour.
Like his eponymous, now-defunct fashion line, he is loud and brash. Ian James Poulter is no wallflower.
That was evident Saturday afternoon during the third round of the Players Championship. He was 5 under for the day heading to the 18th at TPC Sawgrass, a distant but not insurmountable second to Webb Simpson. He made double bogey and dropped to T-9. His chance to win was almost certainly gone, and he knew it.
After signing his card and thanking the standard bearer, Poulter turned back into a small alcove by the scorers building and erupted with a torrent of F-bombs. At himself. At the greenside bunker where a tough lie had just crippled him. At dumb luck. But mostly at himself. As he waited to do a Sky Sports interview, another F-spackled howl, and it wasn’t “Fore!” He took questions from the media and didn’t disguise his disappointment.
“I am seething,” he said.
“The water is going to taste like acid in a minute when I finally have a drink.
“I’m raging right now.”
He walked away angrily slapping his hands together and shaking his head.
It was the kind of unfiltered performance that represents a feast for social media scolds, the curtain-twitchers and finger-waggers who stand alert to denounce any petulance or human frailty. The scolds would have been too busy shooting to pay attention to what happened next.
Poulter didn’t stalk up the steps toward the locker room or parking lot, or skulk away to the range. He took a deep breath, grabbed a Sharpie and walked directly toward a cluster of kids who had been shouting his name (oblivious to what he had been shouting) and signed everything they pushed before him.
The enigma of Poulter
That’s the enigma of Poulter. There’s so much at which to roll your eyes, but you can also count on one hand the number of PGA Tour pros who would have acknowledged waiting kids in those circumstances.
Poulter’s on-course image is defined by the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, when he looked like a wild-eyed madman as he dropped crucial putt after crucial putt. But for too long his off-course image has been shaped by the boastfulness that seems out of scale to his record. This is the season when that image finally changes.
At the WGC-Dell Match Play, Poulter mistakenly thought he had made the field for the Masters. He didn’t hide his disappointment on learning that he hadn’t. But a week later he grabbed the last spot at Augusta National with a dramatic playoff win at the Houston Open.
That was Poulter in a nutshell: motivated by a chip on both shoulders, driven to prove the doubters wrong, never wavering in his determination, then producing a win that was less an exhibition of golfing excellence than of pure guts.
There are a lot of his fellow PGA Tour pros who just don’t understand Poulter. But then those guys never gave lessons to kids for £1 a pop as an assistant pro at Leighton Buzzard Golf Club in England with no obvious way out. They never turned pro with a 4 handicap that wouldn’t even gain entry to the U.S. Amateur.
The Tour is a world of cookie-cutter pros. Guys like Poulter are usually weeded out for their imperfections. He’s as apt to misfire from the hosel as from the lip, but he has fought his way up through sheer willpower and a bulletproof self-belief. The sport is considerably more colorful and entertaining with him on top of his game, even if he is disposed to the occasional tantrum.
Let he who has been to Leighton Buzzard cast the first stone. Gwk