There wasn't much joy for Nick Faldo at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, two years ago this week. His brand of captaincy was deemed a significant factor in Europe losing the Ryder Cup so emphatically, but there was some consolation, and vindication, in the performance of his controversial wild card, Ian Poulter. Faldo picked Poulter to play in all five matches, more than anyone else on the European side, and Poulter responded by winning four of them. His contribution to the final points tally was more than that of Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington and Paul Casey put together.
So there is no doubting the Ryder Cup pedigree of the 34-year-old from Hertfordshire, nor can anyone question his fierce determination to stick it up his critics, the latest of whom is the outspoken TV commentator Johnny Miller, twice a major winner, who dared to call Poulter a poor ball-striker. Poulter, a tireless Twitterer, responded with a succinct "bollocks" and now aims to make Miller eat his words, or at least to use the criticism as motivation.
That's what he did two years ago when he was lambasted for staying in the United States rather than attempting to qualify for the Ryder Cup team in the final ranking event, which then as now was the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles. Faldo asked him to travel to Scotland; Poulter declined. Yet Faldo picked him anyway, preferring him and Casey to the old warhorses Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke. The thunder in Perthshire that day had nothing to do with the weather; it was a wrathful Monty, crying favouritism and bitterly accusing Poulter of having a "hotline to Faldo".
Well, two years is a long time in golf, especially Ryder Cup golf. Now we have Monty as captain (and Clarke as one of his assistants), sweetly asking Poulter what he would like in his Celtic Manor bedroom next week to make him as comfortable as possible, and we can only hope that Poulter cheekily requested a hotline to Faldo. A further irony is that it's now Monty taking the flak for, in particular, overlooking an in-form Casey in favour of a wobbly Harrington. Poulter is entitled to a wry smile as he watches this Ryder Cup version of a phoney war developing, but instead he gets a little testy when I ask whether he shares any of his captain's disappointment that Harrington, Casey, Luke Donald and Justin Rose chose to do what he did in 2008, chasing big bucks in the States rather than Ryder Cup qualification over here.
"I'm not going to go into all that," he says sharply, and promptly goes into all that. "I was in the same situation two years ago so I'd look like a hypocrite if I criticise them. I'm not giving them excuses, either, but it's very difficult to change a schedule sometimes. We do enough travelling, crossing the pond so many times in the course of year, and here are people wanting to throw in another one, to then fly back to America to then fly back to Wales. You can say it's only an aeroplane ride, but it takes a lot out of the body, 10 hours back and forth across the pond."
His close friend Rose is, he adds, "very disappointed" not to receive Monty's summons. But is it not, I venture, something of a self-inflicted wound? "No, not really. Again, you're getting me to talk about things I don't want to talk about. A self-inflicted wound? I think that's very harsh. At the start of the year Justin was outside the world's top 50. He wasn't at Augusta. So it was always going to be difficult for him [to qualify]. But then he won two big tournaments in America. He's had a great year in America, and that's why they have Ryder Cup picks, to allow people to play the schedule they want. We can talk about how Paul wasn't picked, how Justin wasn't picked, but I don't want to get into would've been, should've been, could've been. The picks are the picks, and the team is very strong. At the end of the day Monty had five guys and three picks, so two people were always going to be gutted. The fact is that these [Harrington, Donald and Edoardo Molinari] are the guys he's selected to help win back the Ryder Cup, so we can have this debate afterwards."
Fair enough, then let's move to less contentious issues. How does he think the two teams match up? "I think they're both strong. There are more rookies than in previous years, both sides are very young, and both sides have a lot of good potential partnerships. I think there's more camaraderie in the US side than in previous years, and that will probably show. It's not going to be easy for us in any way, shape or form."
And so to the shape, and more especially the form, of Tiger Woods. Did Poulter ever think that American captain Corey Pavin might not bring the Tiger to south Wales?
"I don't really understand the question, to be honest. How can a side possibly be stronger without him than with him? He's quite clearly the best player in the world. He hasn't played much because he's had a number of different things going on..." – Poulter ignores my bark of laughter at this marvellously coy understatement – "...but he's still world No 1 and this is not a 72-hole event. If Tiger plays his best golf for 15 holes, that will be good enough to beat any opponent."
I don't remind Poulter of his ill-considered observation in a magazine interview a couple of years ago that when he starts playing to his full potential, "it will just be me and Tiger". Nor do I remind him of his Twitter post earlier this year when he referred to Tottenham Hotspur as "the Yids", a remark for which he later apologised, and one I wouldn't raise now except for the fact that he is sitting in his home in Orlando trying to focus on my questions while also watching his beloved Arsenal playing Spurs in the Carling Cup. "Awesome," he cries, as Arsenal are awarded a penalty.
The point is that Poulter tends to get noticed more than most of his peers, on account of the verbal statements he makes, the Twitter statements (he has more than a million followers), but above all the fashion statements. I once met his mother, former manageress of the Letchworth branch of Dorothy Perkins, and she told me that he had been a snappy dresser since the age of five. But how can he express his cherished idiosyncrasy in a Ryder Cup uniform? "It's not about individuals," he says. "I've seen the outfits and I think everyone will be happy with them. It would be hard for me if I didn't like them, but they look good, conservative but with splashes of colour. Colin and the team have done a very good job."
There is, he adds unsurprisingly, no lingering disaffection between himself and Montgomerie. "Colin's track record in the Ryder Cup speaks for itself, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he brings to the team room. He's asked us all what we would like to make us feel comfortable, and I've mentioned a couple of things, though I'm not going to say what. It might be a stock of jelly babies in my room, or non-feather pillows, anything that makes us as comfortable as possible so that all that's going through our minds is beating our opponents."
His first Ryder Cup captain was Bernhard Langer in 2004, skippering Europe to their biggest-ever winning margin, and the putt that clinched a famous victory, though often credited to Monty, was in fact Poulter's, seconds earlier. I ask him whether the joy of winning in Michigan in 2004 was more intense than the despair of losing four years later at Valhalla? It is a small quirk of Poulter's Ryder Cup record, incidentally, that he missed 2006 and so his only two appearances have been on American soil. He has yet to sample the fervour of a home crowd.
"I think the second one had more meaning to it for me because I really felt I had to deliver to warrant getting the pick," he says. "To then play all five times, that was a different intensity, and I used all the negative stuff to inspire me to do as well as I possibly could." No, he has not passed this recollection on to Harrington, the most criticised of Monty's choices. "And anyway, if you're saying he's the weakest pick of the three, I'm not sure. He's a three-time major winner and a very gutsy character. I wouldn't want to play him in matchplay."
Matchplay, he adds, is his favourite form of golf. He loves the mano-a-mano nature of singles, but also the differing requirements of foursomes and fourballs. "In the fourballs you can obviously be much more aggressive and go for every single pin, whereas in foursomes you only have one ball, so you've got to be a lot more careful, giving yourself the best chance of making birdie without giving the hole away."
He reckons that it was a second-day fourball match two years, him and Graeme McDowell against Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry, that yielded his finest bit of play in the Ryder Cup. "Furyk had a 20ft eagle putt, so I had to get up and down from 45 yards to pretty much guarantee that we won the match. To do that was incredible."
That Poulter's most vivid memories of the great contest come from that 2008 defeat rather than the 2004 win perhaps says something about Poulter, but also reflects the paradox of the Ryder Cup, one of the most fiercely individualistic of sports unfolding in a context of fraternal togetherness. Does he find this strange? "I do, in a way, but don't forget that all the European guys play a similar schedule, we dine in twos, fours and sixes at most tournaments. We all get on."
Nevertheless, golf is not, at heart, a team game. And maybe this is why the most successful men in major championship history, Woods and before him Jack Nicklaus, have Ryder Cup records not remotely commensurate with their achievements as individual players. Maybe young Rory McIlroy is right to say that he would rather win a big tour event. But does Poulter expect Celtic Manor to change the lad's mind?
"We'll have to ask him that question afterwards. Would I take a tournament win off my CV if it meant I could add another Ryder Cup win? That's tough. There's no doubt that the passion of playing in the Ryder Cup far outweighs the passion you give in any major. But would I give up any of my personal achievements?" There is a long pause, interrupted by another yelp of joy as Arsenal stick another one in the Tottenham net. "No," he says, at last.Reuse content