A ball signed by Seve Ballesteros is exhibit A in the Florida trophy cabinet of Ian Poulter. It was acquired 24 years ago at the British Masters in Woburn after Poulter – a 15-year-old from Stevenage – had journeyed across Bedfordshire in his brother’s old jalopy to pay homage to his hero, who won by three strokes.
After a seven-year absence, the British Masters is back, adding a welcome second European Tour event on English soil. Poulter is the nominal host of a tournament sponsored by Sky on its return to his club, Woburn, where it spent 10 happy years during Seve’s pomp. “Seeing Seve in the flesh was great motivation,” Poulter said. “At that stage I was told by Tottenham that I was no good [as a footballer]. It was tunnel vision from then on, work in the pro shop, do my PGA exams and become a pro.
“My brother was driving at that age. It was about an hour from Stevenage – it might have been quicker, but he didn’t have a car that would trouble the speed limit. You need to see your heroes play. It is the best way to do it.”
Those were the days. Poulter maintains his connection to that halcyon past with a home in Milton Keynes, a hub for the fortnight he spent at Woburn after the Open fulfilling charity and sponsor obligations. One of those was a clinic for youngsters with ambitions as big as his own, including my own 16-year-old son, Jonny, who benefited from a bunker session at Woburn’s new chipping complex and a few impromptu driving tips.
The latter were unscripted and took place unconventionally at the side of the Tavistock complex. “Here,” Poulter prompted, sotto voce, “bang a couple through that gap in the trees.” Jonny obliged with shoulders aligned left of the target. “No wonder you bloody slice it,” added Poulter. Jonny came home with a high draw, which for now, at least, he retains.
For all his gauche accoutrements, Poulter likes to give back, reprising his days as a PGA pro at Chesfield Downs. He sees it as a vital thread in renewing the game – a duty, almost, to fire the imaginations of kids. And, yes, that demographic loves to play golf if only the game would do more to accommodate it.
“When I used to work at Leighton Buzzard, we would have a number of groups at the weekend that we would swap between. If you get them in early, they stay the course. Some of the junior members there are now members here, still playing golf,” said Poulter, an honorary desert rat after spending so many hours in the Woburn sand as a youngster.
“Golf is expensive to play, as it is to maintain a golf course. You can’t expect clubs to discount green fees or they will go bust. It’s difficult but the game has to be more imaginative and try to get kids playing golf. I care about young lads and girls who want a shot at glory. My advice to them is get guidance from a certified coach and play with better players – you learn a lot that way, seeing first-hand how they drive the ball, hit it out of bunkers etc. Then you go home and practice.
“I stopped school at 15, just before my GCSEs. From then, until I was 23, I was in the pro shop and practising every day when I had cover. I’m a ruthless, stubborn so-and-so. Once I get an idea in my head, nothing is going to get in my way and no one is going to tell me otherwise. If you put your mind to it, you can make it. I wasn’t one for clubbing. The alarm went off at five in the morning. I had to get up on a Saturday and Sunday to open the shop. That’s not the only way to do it, just mine.”
Poulter finds this time of year strangely profitable, the last leg of a long season on the road a time of plunder. Half of his 12 tournament wins have come in October and November, when the PGA Tour is largely dormant and the European Tour builds to its climax. His last victory came two years ago at the final world golf championship of the season, the prestigious HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai.
He came close in the early part of this year, losing by a stroke to Padraig Harington at the Honda Classic after posting two double bogeys and a triple on the last day. Poulter admits to a sense of frustration at his failure to see out tournaments on the PGA Tour and to concerns about the expiry date on a torso that turns 40 in January.
“I had a bad year last year, the worst on record due to injury. I’m not getting any younger. I picked up another annoying little injury in Texas that held me back. At the start of this season I took nine weeks off. I was in great shape and came out all guns blazing. I started to find a lot of form. I feel it’s not far from returning.
“I’m more motivated today because I know I can compete with the best in the world. You don’t go to the Honda, one of the most difficult tournaments of the year, get to plus-11 strokes gained tee to green against the field, without playing good golf. I hit a couple of poor tee shots down the stretch that cost me dearly.
“My good is good enough. When I get back to my best and I don’t get injured, I have no doubt I’ll be winning again. But I need to do it now before I get too old. The stats tell you younger men win golf tournaments. I don’t care what tournament it is, I just want to win.”
And at Woburn, too, where he ran Justin Rose so close on the final day 13 years ago. “To have this back on English soil is brilliant,” said Poulter. “We have been starved of tournaments in England. It makes you proud, especially when it is at your home club. We have a great purse, a great field on a great golf course. I’m proud to be hosting the event 13 years on from the duel with Justin. I’m looking forward to another week like that, only this time I want the win.”
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