Complex chemistry of golf's odd couple

Ian Poulter and Justin Rose enjoy a friendship based on their differences, which may be why they make such a formidable England team at golf's World Cup. James Corrigan reports

As the largest golfing complex on the planet, boasting 12 courses, 216 holes and a land mass twice the size of Manhattan, Mission Hills could be described as being a world away from most places, certainly the traditional Chinese district it has transformed like the arrival of a spaceship in Sleepyville.

But for Justin Rose and Ian Poulter this week's 28-team World Cup must feel like it is taking place in a different universe to the circumstances in which they first linked up and became friends. Then they were young professionals struggling to equate those incompatible tasks of making putts and making a living; this morning they set off as the favourites to lift the first prize for England. Not to mention a cool £800,000 for themselves.

The contrast was obvious as they had their first taste of the Olazabal Course here yesterday. They were located on the first tee, half a mile past a 108-metre statue called the "Lady Goddess Buddha", straight up a hill that was something of a mission to conquer. "Jeez, you did well to get up here on foot," said Poulter. He was glad to be in possession of a buggy for another reason, too. "You should have seen the snake that just squirmed underneath this cart – it was a big bugger, this long and this thick," he explained, showing the measurements with his hands, just as he would a 30-footer with plenty of left to right. He then asked one of his pro-am partners if the viper was deadly. "Maybe," said the nonplussed local. And to think, it was once fleas that Rose and Poulter were worried about.

"Yeah, the accommodation was pretty basic when we roomed together back on the Challenge Tour, although perhaps quite not that bad," said Rose, now a neighbour of Poulter's in the gated Florida community at Lake Nona. "It was all definitely a million miles from this resort. I suppose it just shows how far we've come since that first meeting."

That happened to be on the practice green at the French Open in 1999. Poulter that week played the agonising role of being first reserve, desperate for a spot in the fully fledged European Tour that offered an escape from golf's minor leagues. He went home disappointed but, if anything, Rose's plight was even more white-knuckled. The 18-year-old's berth was confirmed because of yet another invite but, as he was nearing the end of that infamous run of 21 missed cuts, he probably wished it had not. Rose's joint-fourth-placed, amateur heroics of the previous summer at the Open at Royal Birkdale had long become a distant, rather surreal memory and he cut a sad, almost pathetic figure who, following all the hype, it is fair to say was not altogether popular on a circuit creaking with cynical journeymen. Then Ian Poulter entered his life.

"It was love at first sight," laughed Poulter, when asked to recall the moment the pair first clapped eyes on each other. "Justin was putting, I was chipping and we just started chatting to each other. We hit it off from there really. Soon after that we started rooming together. Then we got married in 2000, then..."

Rose liked that, giggling himself silly, happy to be the straight man in this double act and going on to make a serious point about the influence of this new friend who, while being four years older, was many years younger in so many other respects. "That was a key time in my career," he said. "I had virtually finished playing on the European Tour and was starting afresh on the Challenge Tour. I learnt a lot from Ian at that point. He seemed to have a lot more fun than me. We would go out to dinner and there would be so much more laughing going on than at any time since I turned pro. That was an important part of me improving as a player – learning to enjoy myself on Tour.

"For example, with Poults, the music would be on, blaring in the room, and that was something that I wouldn't have necessarily have done before. Relax, like that. And there was his confidence as well. I was rooming with him when he went out and won a few events. I saw how he went about it, just went out and did it. Like I said, I learnt a lot."

The education was two-way. "What did I learn off Justin?" said Poulter. "He was going through a tough, tough period at the time, but to see someone with the will and determination to keep pressing on and keep working – well, it was good to see. It would have been easy for someone of that age just to crumble and Justin didn't. And look where he is today – eighth in the world, having won the Order of Merit. That's inspiring. It's certainly inspired me."

Indeed, Poulter credits his pal with assisting his own leap up the rankings. Last week's success at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan hurtled the 31-year-old to a career-high of 20th in the world. "It's been a great friendship," he said. "If you are in a period when you're not playing well and one of your best mates is up there winning and being in contention week after week, it invigorates you to do the same. It's been that sort of rivalry. A healthy one."

Healthy or otherwise, there will be no rivalry between the pair here over the next few days, not even sartorially, because the usually flamboyant Poulter has sought to colour-match his outfits with the comparatively dowdy Rose. If that sounds like a concession – and do not forget, golf is rather good at them – then it really shouldn't, because this alliance is one of compromise and not dominance. While Poulter is clearly the half with the bravado, Rose is no longer the violet with a height problem. Over the years, he has grown up and Poulter has grown down, so now their banter is the banter of equals.

"You know, I pop around his house and we have arguments over what gadgets he's going to buy and this and that and he does likewise," said Rose. "Because of our schedules we don't see as much of each other as we once did, but then that is inevitable. But we are still really close and that's what makes this tournament so special.

"It's funny, but people always wonder how we became so good friends and yeah, I suppose we are very different," Rose added. "But they say opposites attract don't they? I probably feed off him because he has traits in his character that I haven't and vice versa. Whatever, we're just both really glad to be here, representing England and playing for the World Cup. We dreamt of doing things like this back in the day."

From the fleapits to the snakepit – it's been some journey.

Shared goal: How the unlikely lads rose to the top

JUSTIN ROSE

Year/Events/Earnings/Best Finish

1999/25/£13,635/4th Austrian Open

2000/29/£79,406/11th BMW Open

2001/29/£447,553/2nd Dunhill Champs

2002/31/£953,700/1st British Masters

2003/29/£911,569/3rd Deutsche Bank

2004/32/£706,862/4th Memorial Event

2005/33/£663,753/3rd Buick Champs

2006/31/£949,492/1st Melbourne Event

2007/24/£2.67m/1st Volvo Masters

IAN POULTER

Year/Events/Earnings/Best Finish

1999/28/£15,440/1st Ivory Coast

2000/28/£322,462/1st Italian Open

2001/31/£530,674/1st Morocco Open

2002/27/£599,921/1st Italian Open

2003/30/£1.08m/1st Wales Open

2004/28/£1.13m/1st Volvo Masters

2005/30/£791,622/4th Scottish Open

2006/31/£1.39m/1st Madrid Open

2007/27/£1.08m/2nd British Masters

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