The organisers were still setting up, the sun had yet to warm the patio in front of the clubhouse when Ian Poulter appeared, clubs slung around a shoulder, taking the staff by surprise. “Morning,” he said to none in particular, “nice day for it.”
Dukes Meadows in Chiswick is a pay-as-you-play par-three facility, the kind of set-up, if not location, that connects with Poulter’s bluecollar past. His easy familiarity was nicely at odds with the cool detachment of the agency honeys policing the turf in hauteur and heels. Maybe they thought he was delivering the milk.
This snapshot by the Thames was Poulter through and through. This was a charity day. He was helping out old mates with a project that would raise cash for worthy causes and launch a version of the game, Zone Golf, aimed at bringing the sport to the masses. He had missed the last three cuts at big events, including Wentworth, where the BMW PGA Championship had concluded the day before. He was done by Friday, but said he would do it and here he was.
Yet, just 24 hours earlier, while 20-year-old Matteo Manassero was further embellishing his reputation with a fourth career victory at the European Tour’s blue riband tournament, Poulter was parading on the grid at the Monaco Grand Prix. This was also Poulter through and through and an open goal for his critics. The idea that Poulter is bling-heavy, substance-light is well established among his green-eyed detractors. They pluck from the torrent of Twitter updates the stuff that fits their point of view.
The communiqués from Monaco were filed alongside the cars, home cinema, private jets etc, in the catalogue of rich man’s flotsam that proves what a tosser he is. If he were the serious golfer he claims to be, as opposed to a Ryder Cup mascot, he would concentrate more on winning the tournaments that matter, not missing cuts at the Masters, the Players and Wentworth, is how the argument goes. The US Open begins on Thursday at Merion. Wouldn’t Poulter be better served prioritising practice over poncing in Monte Carlo?
The sensible thing to do after the early bath at Wentworth would have been to make his apologies and scarper back to Florida post haste to seek the remedy for his swing ills. But that would have meant letting down a friend –not an option for Poulter. Like all public figures, he is marooned between Poulter the construction and Poulter the man, the perception and the reality. He knows how the two are connected but the thread for others is lost in the media prism.
His form has embarrassed him. Banter is the default coping strategy, fertile territory from which to draw unsympathetic inferences.
“People don’t see how hard you work. People just read the stuff on Twitter. They ask why I wasn’t on the range all weekend instead of being at Monaco. You know what? You have to have some balance. The Monaco thing was spur of the moment. I wanted to win at Wentworth. If not win then come second, if not that then third. We know what happened. I made a couple of phone calls. F1 is a passion of mine; I was not the only one there. I had a chat with AVB [Andre Villas-Boas], met [Fernando] Alonso, so it was nice. It was inspiring. They work just as hard as we do. I came back even more fired up.”
Any of you Poulter-bashers buying into this? Since his Ryder Cup heroics at Medinah and the prestigious victory at the final World Golf Championship event of 2012, the HSBC Champions in China, Poulter asked himself how he might improve on a talent good enough to take him into the world top 20, and ultimately how to convert at a major championship. The answer, he concluded, was to do as he always had, to graft, only this time even harder. Typically golf does not always reward intent. The game has a way of mocking even the most worthy. Witness the derailment of world No 1 Tiger Woods at the Memorial Tournament last week, and his deputy, No 2 Rory McIlroy, yet to win at all this year.
Because of his visibility, and the volume at which he operates, Poulter is only ever a snap hook from ridicule. Come rain or shine he is out there interacting and projecting in cyberspace. Great when the pictures he tweets feature silverware, less so when the view is from a balcony in Monaco. A savvy PR aide might advise not to engage in this way but he defends the interaction on grounds of good faith. There is at the heart of the Poulter proposition a core honesty. He does not operate a censor. You get the lot, good and bad.
“I’m never going to feel ashamed for the nice things that I have achieved through this game. No one has ever given me anything. No one gave me a tour card, no one gave me a US tour card, no one gave me a nice house and a Ferrari: I’ve had to work for every penny I have earned and I’m proud of that. I don’t mind sharing that with people. If anything it inspires people to work hard because it shows what can be done.
“I have always been confident. I know my own mind, what I’m able to do. I will never sit down and dwell. People think, ‘Look at him, he’s ramming it [success] down our throats’. That’s not the case. I am giving people a look on the inside at what can be achieved by getting off your backside and working hard.”
Poulter, surprisingly, doesn’t mind the stick. “If you want to give me a beating, that’s fine. I have no problem with that as long as they evaluate the whole picture. If someone isn’t working they deserve all that’s coming. I have never worked harder than I have in this period because I want to improve. The results I have had are not a reflection of how hard I’m working. I’ve got to trust what I’m doing. I believe what I have been working on are the right things and it will turn around. This game goes like that. It’s close but at the minute not quite there.”
Despite the run of missed cuts, Poulter enters the second major of the season ranked 16th in the world. He has 18 victories worldwide. Not bad. Those who dismiss him might try looking not at the elite 15 players ranked higher than him but the millions below who play this game. For a lad who was working in a pro shop at 20, Poulter, it might be argued, has over-achieved.
“It only takes 20 minutes to find something on the range and then the whole thing can turn around, just as it did for Matteo [Manassero] and Simon [Khan] at Wentworth. I have not played well for a month. Everybody is asking questions. What’s wrong? What’s happening? I’m not flushing it, that’s all. But this is golf. I’m frustrated because I want to perform well. I expect to play well. This hasn’t happened like this for a long time. I have had big weeks before. I shall have them again. I’m only 37. I have plenty of life in these legs yet.”
That is how it appeared on the opening day in Memphis. After a week on the range in Florida, Poulter’s US Open preparation took him to the St Jude Classic, where he began Thursday’s opening round with a double bogey at the 10th. He was four over after five holes and seemingly disappearing deeper into the vortex that has swallowed him up this past eight weeks.
Poulter has never been anything less than a fighter. A hat-trick of birdies to the turn transformed the complexion of his round. The 69 for which he eventually signed was both a dogged response to adversity and, in the end, a fluent riposte to the golfing gods.
Poulter marched from the scorer’s hut to the merchandise tent, where a queue had gathered in his honour. For all his nationalistic fervour, this slayer of American Ryder Cup dreams is a popular figure in his adopted homeland. America loves a dose of chutzpah, even when it comes wrapped in tartan trousers. They love a trier, too. In Poulter they recognise something of themselves, something of the spirit that remains central to the American ideal. He would never claim to be the most talented golfer to have swung a club, but few have made more of what nature has given them.
Merion is a quirky host of the national championship, shorter than most and with a very English feel. If it is to yield a winner outside the usual suspects, Poulter might just be quirky enough to claim it. “I’ll be giving it my best shot, like I always do. I expect a lot of myself. There is no point turning up if you don’t think you can win. And these are the events we all want to do well in. So yeah, why not?”
Year to forget? Poulter in 2013
* Ian Poulter has finished in the top 10 in two of his nine events this year, missing the cut three times.
4-7 Jan Tournament of Champions (Kapalua, Hawaii) Tied 9th
20-24 Feb Match Play Championship (Marana, Arizona) 4th
7-10 Mar Cadillac Championship (Miami) Tied 28th
21-24 Mar Arnold Palmer Invitational (Orlando) Tied 21st
4-7 Apr Texas Open (San Antonio) Tied 37th
11-14 Apr Masters (Augusta) Missed cut
9-12 May Players Championship (Ponte Vedra Bch, Florida) Missed cut
16-19 May World Match Play (Kavarna, Bulgaria) Tied 17th
23-26 May BMW PGA Championship (Wentworth) Missed cut