Ian Poulter: 'It's a chain effect. A mate wins so you want it even more'

Interview No 1: In the first of a series of interviews with the year's major sporting figures, the man who started the ball rolling, tells James Corrigan how the UK dominated the world of golf in 2010
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The Independent Online

Another weekend brought another win in America at the climax of a golfing year Britain wishes would never end. It may only have been the Shark Shootout, a curtain-dropping dollar-fest, but the success of Ian Poulter in Florida on Sunday was a fitting climax to this plus-foured annus mirabilis.

Except, perhaps it wasn't. Not only was Poulter in partnership with a home boy in Dustin Johnson, but the most appropriate finale would surely transpire in a vast auditorium in Birmingham this Sunday evening. At the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show the ancient sport is going for an unprecedented treble.

Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood are two of the first three favourites to win the individual prize, the Ryder Cup winners are surely a shoo-in for the team award, while there is a strong whisper that the Europe captain Colin Montgomerie will collect "coach of the year". The last-named honour may well be over the top seeing as Monty, that most natural of performers, is to technical golf coaching what he is to anger management. Yet after this 2010 of fairwayed fulfilment it is perhaps irresistible to go a bit OTT.

Poulter evidently thinks so. "With the World Cup and everything it's not been the greatest year for British sport," he says, when sitting down with The Independent. "So it's a good thing the golfers stepped up to the plate. You only need to see what we've done by looking at the rankings."

Indeed, as far as happy reading goes the world list is in the section marked "ecstatic". With Westwood leading the way at No 1, the first European to do so in more than a decade and a half, there happens to be five more fellow blue-and-golders populating the top 10. And from a more parochial perspective the view from the top becomes ever more uplifting. "There's six players from the United Kingdom in the top 11," says Poulter. "That's quite a lot isn't it? Think of it, the UK is outnumbering the US up there by 6-4. Amazing. You wouldn't think you'd ever see that. Rewind 10 years and we had one player in the top 100."

There were actually two and that by now infamous stat referred only to Englishmen. Yet Poulter's exaggeration is eminently forgivable. After all he was the man who can claim to have started the whole balata rolling, his victory in the WGC Match Play Championship in Tucson in February teeing it up for four more professionals holding British passports to win on the PGA Tour. As the previous record had been, err, one, the scale of this achievement should not be underestimated. The British, who had for so long been coming, finally arrived.

"There was this sense of opportunity at the start of the year," recalls Poulter. "Everything that happened to Tiger [Woods] gave the rankings a more open feel and made you believe there would be plenty of big trophies and ranking points to be won. I think it's fair to say that of all the countries, the UK grasped that opportunity. There wasn't just one of us, but a group. Why? Well, I've always believed in the chain effect. You see your mate winning and you're happy for him; but inside you're burning. You've seen him doing it, now you want to show you can as well. That's credit to the European Tour and to the camaraderie it fosters and to the friendship we all have. And, of course, to the Ryder Cup."

If anything links Montgomerie to Poulter – and, if truth be told, not much does – it is the biennial dust-up. The respect the former has for the latter is no better expressed than in a statement he made in an interview with the BBC. "If Poulter was 30th in the qualifying rankings I'd still pick him," crooned the Scot. "Ian Poulter is made for the Ryder Cup."

It takes a lot to make Poulter blush but blood filled his cheeks when told of Montgomerie's endorsement. There can be no doubt that McDowell was the hero of that mud-splattered, tear-soaked week at Celtic Manor (just as there should be little doubt that with his US Open trophy the Ulsterman is the hero of the UK's entire sporting year). But just as he had before, Poulter summed up the European attitude to this curious, "ungolfing" bun fight. With his fist clenched and his pupils bulged he was keenest to take the battle to the Americans, managing to upset a certain sporting superstar along the way.

Just before the climactic singles, from which Europe needed at least five of the 12 points, Poulter appeared on Sky and announced: "I will win my point." There was as much room for doubt in his conviction as there seemingly was for humility, or indeed respect for his opponent Matt Kuchar. "Not everyone appreciated that comment," says Poulter. "Tiger heard it and marched straight back into the locker room to tell Kuchar he may as well pack up as I'd already beaten him. He was just trying to rev him up, which is fine. But what was I going to say? 'Oooh, it's going to be a difficult day, I hope we can do it...' No, I knew they were going to come at us and come at us hard and that we had to stand up and be counted. And the way I'd played those first few days I thought I would win my point. What's wrong with that?"

As it turned out, nothing – he prevailed 5&4. Poulter, however, confesses he would only be emboldened to make this sort of promise in the Ryder Cup. "I've got in trouble in the past for some of my predictions," he laughed. Indeed, his "one day it will be just me and Tiger" boast earned him notoriety that to this very day delivers ribbing on the range. But the unique environs of the golfing team room bring out the worst, which also happens to be the best, in him.

"I was 17, it was the Belfry and I became absolutely transfixed with the event," he says. "I stayed in a tent the whole week with two mates and thought it was the best sporting occasion I'd ever been to in my life." Better even than watching his beloved Arsenal at Wembley? "Well, the difference is I could never hope to play in that," he says. "But at the Belfry I thought, 'I could play in this one day, I will play in this one day'. That's what made it so exciting to me."

The idea of the Ryder Cup being Poulter's Cup final is an intriguing theory which he is at least willing to entertain. "I don't feel like a frustrated footballer, but maybe there's something in it as I was told when I was young I wasn't good enough and had to go looking for something else," he says. "But I was always passionate about playing football; in football you show more emotion in 10 minutes than you do in the whole week of a normal golf tournament. So yeah, maybe that does have something to do with my Ryder Cup fascination. It's the one place a golfer can truly interact with fans."

He explains: "You haven't just got people who like this golfer or that golfer or just admire the game. You've got home fans, away fans and they get so excited. You stand over a 12-footer on the first, knowing that if you make it you're going to bring the house down. You get that sort of adrenaline rush so many times in the round – not just on the 18th. Majors don't even do that to you. This anticipation of the roar is the best feeling in golf to me."

It is a feeling he sought to replicate as the experts queried why he struggled to repeat his Ryder Cup form in the individual arena. "Initially, I told myself I had to emulate that intensity every week," he says. "But then I realised you can't. Imagine being at the Masters and, say, holing a 12-footer for a birdie on the first and marching around the green fist-pumping, going mad. Everyone would think you're a lunatic. It's unfortunate as I need that sometimes to get going. But I've learned to do it internally."

The evidence is writ large in a season which might have been yet more garlanded but for a bizarre infringement on the second playoff hole at last month's Dubai World Championship. When lining up a putt, he dropped his ball onto his marker, which duly took a flip forwards. The result: one-shot penalty, Robert Karlsson wins £775,000. It should have been a time for sympathy but Poulter didn't get much. But then, if you live by the tweet you die by the tweet and this social website obsessive soon discovered the barbs were flying towards his inbox. Westwood, who addresses Poulter as "Sparrow Legs" on Twitter, was particularly brutal.

"I love the banter," says Poulter. "Listen, I'm not going to allow what happened in Dubai to cloud my year, because I've finished the season great with my win in Hong Kong. The only thing that did worry me was the quiet period I had after the match play. All I can put it down to is I was distracted. I always have objectives for the season and they were to win in the States, win a WGC, get in the Ryder Cup and make the top 10. I achieved them all in a week! It was obviously a big thing and I should have taken a few weeks off to reflect on it and put in place new goals. I'll be better equipped the next time."

By the sounds of the ever more positive Poulter, he expects the next time to appear very soon. "We all know what the next goals are," he says. "I want to win majors. Watching Graeme win the US Open has only made me believe it is even more possible. I think it has for all of us. It's that chain effect thing. And it won't only be us lot, as I think there'll be more European golfers following our lead and showing they can do it, too. I'm telling you, this could be one hell of a long chain." A bluey, goldy looking one, at that.

UK's annus mirabilis: 12 months of fairway heaven

January

Quiet opening, although Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy show good form by finishing second and third behind Martin Kaymer in Abu Dhabi and Lee Westwood is edged out in a play-off by Miguel Angel Jimenez in Dubai.

February

Poulter and Paul Casey make it an all-English final of the Match Play in Tucson with the former becoming the first Englishman to win a WGC event. It is Poulter's first US title and takes him into the world's top 10.

March

Luke Donald gets his third PGA Tour top 10 of the season. He goes on to notch five more across the pond and five more on the European Tour (including a win in Madrid) to re-establish himself in the world's top 10. In the women's game, Laura Davies wins in New Zealand as the 47-year-old goes on to lift five titles in 2010.

April

Westwood finishes runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the Masters, making it top-three placings in the last three majors. The next week, Brian Davis becomes a hero in America when calling a penalty on himself to lose the Heritage in a play-off to Jim Furyk.

May

McIlroy stuns America with a final round 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship. The 20-year-old is the youngest PGA Tour winner since Tiger Woods. At Wentworth, the English journeyman Simon Khan produces a fantastical 66 to take the PGA Championship.

June

Undoubtedly the United Kingdom's finest golfing month in America as Justin Rose wins his first US title in Ohio, Westwood wins the next week in Memphis and then, seven days later, Graeme McDowell wins at Pebble Beach. The Ulsterman becomes the first European to win the US Open in four decades, superbly keeping his nerve to deny Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the process.

July

Rose makes it four UK wins in five weeks on the PGA Tour, winning for the second time in three starts. At The Open at St Andrews, Westwood comes second to South African Louis Oosthuizen, with Casey and McIlroy in a tie for third.

August

McIlroy finishes one shot out of the play-off in the USPGA at Whistling Straits, won by Martin Kaymer. The German's success means that three of the four majors are held by European Tour members.

September

Six of the Europe Ryder Cup team hail from the United Kingdom, although such is the strength of the side Colin Montgomerie feels forced to leave out the then world No 9 Casey. Donald misses out on £7.5m when pipped by Furyk to the FedEx Cup.

October

Europe win the Ryder Cup, with McDowell collecting the decisive point in the final singles match against Hunter Mahan. Westwood caps off a spectacular month by overhauling Woods at the top of the world rankings. It is the first time in more than five years Woods is not No 1.

November

Westwood, the first British No 1 since Faldo in 1994, maintains his position by outscoring Woods in the WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai. Despite not playing for almost a month because of his long-standing calf injury, Westwood comes second. Poulter wins in Hong Kong, but agonisingly loses the Dubai World Championship play-off after a bizarre marker infringement.

December

Westwood wins in South Africa to ensure he finishes the year as the world No 1, while later that day McDowell beats Woods at the American's own tournament in California. It is the first time Woods loses a four-shot lead in a final round as McDowell holds monster putts on the 18th and first sudden-death hole. Poulter, alongside Dustin Johnson, wins the Shark Shootout.

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