Ian Poulter: 'The best Americans are getting older. It's our time'
With seven Britons in the top 20, Ian Poulter senses a power shift in world golf. He tells James Corrigan that it will be felt at St Andrews
Tuesday 13 July 2010
At St Andrews which would be braver? A British player wearing a kilt at a windy Open Championship? Or a British player laying the gauntlet down to an American contingent who just happen to have won seven Opens this century compared to the home guard's total of none?
Ian Poulter confesses to not possessing the requisite courage/ insanity to try the former. Yet when it comes to declaring the United States golfing domination to be over he is not nearly so reticent.
"I haven't spoken to the Americans lately but they're not going to be happy, are they?" said Poulter. "If you look at the winners on their tour over the last few weeks, four out of five have been European – and Justin [Rose] should have won the other one. Our guys are going over there and winning week in, week out. It's great. I love it. It really fires things up for the Ryder Cup – even more passion will be spilt out over Celtic Manor. I can't wait."
Never mind the Ryder Cup, his comments will fire up this major nicely enough. Poulter is a popular figure on the PGA Tour and the Americans have become well used to his mischievous manner. But many a true word said in jest and all that, and when Poulter predicts the future for Europe's – dare we use the label? – "golden generation", his warning rings loud. The 34-year-old started the extraordinary streak of European success with his victory in the WGC World Match Play in February and he does not foresee the run coming to a halt any time soon. In fact, not in the next decade and a half.
"The American guys who have won all the tournaments over the past few years are getting older," he reasoned. "Phil [Mickelson] is 40 – can he do what Vijay [Singh] did in his forties? He's strong enough; it's whether he is hungry enough, I guess. The talent to replace them is very young and needs a bit more experience. We have a 15-year window. The Americans have a gap and that gap is being filled by Europeans, guys who are in their late twenties, early thirties and who are doing the job right now."
Poulter believes there is an obvious explanation why it is happening. "If you are good mates you spur each other on," he said. "Take me and Justin. I think my success has boosted Justin so I'm hoping it will work the same way the other way around now. But it's not just us two, it's Luke [Donald], Graeme [McDowell], Lee (Westwood] – all the guys that have been winning. You love seeing them win but it burns inside. You say to yourself, 'That could have been me'."
By Poulter's reckoning, McDowell's breakthrough at last month's US Open will direct the march towards the majors. With Padraig Harrington's immortal treble of 2007 and 2008, Europeans have won four of the last 12 and, although the tally of England, Scotland and Wales remains rooted to zero, Poulter envisages an imminent redressing of this anomaly. "The impact of Graeme's win is going to be positive for the British and European guys heading into this Open," he said. "In five years' time we should have taken a few of those majors. I don't want to put a number on it but the guys who are in the top 40 in the world are all capable of winning them. It's for us to go out there and prove it but we can certainly win one or two a year."
That may seem an audacious claim by Poulter – the man who just a few years ago said "one day it will be just me and Tiger" – but it is backed up by statistics. Never mind the fact that five different players from the home nations have already won in America this year; or, indeed, that previously no more than one United Kingdom player had won in any one season. Just refer to the world rankings. This will be the first major in which the UK will boast more members of the top 20 than the US. The 7-6 scoreline is remarkable when one considers that in 2005, the last time the Open was held at the Home of Golf, it read 10-2 in favour of the away side, and that five years earlier it was 10-3.
The Millennium Open here was actually Poulter's debut in the British major and he confesses to "walking around in a bit of a daze". That was the year of the first "Champions Challenge" and Poulter vividly recalls watching the parade of legends. "I was hitting balls next to Sam Snead on the range – how is that right?" he said. "I got a ball signed by him which is in my trophy cabinet. Then some other guy came up to him and said, 'Can you sign a ball for me?' and he said, 'I don't sign golf balls.' I thought, '[but] you do'.
"Then I sat on the steps of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse watching Snead and the guys that have played and won every tournament there is and it was an amazing feeling. Very inspirational. I'll probably do the same this time. It's cool. Where else has that been done? Where else is it right to do it?"
This most colourful of dressers is clearly taken with the Auld Grey Toon and thus his challenge should not be underestimated this week. He is a confidence player who performs best with a swagger and it is fair to say the Old Course triggers what he calls "the buzz factor". "I've got such a soft spot for St Andrews," he said. "It was there in 2000 that I played my first major and there in 2005 that I started to feel comfortable in the big events. I finished 11th and was livid. Tiger won by five shots but my back-nine stats were better than his. I just got off to a horrible start every day. Somebody came up and congratulated me but I had steam coming out of my ears. I knew I should have finished higher. You could say I'm looking forward to this one."
There is a determination about the world No 8 here and it is not only to right the wrong of '05. Poulter is furious with himself for coasting since his Match Play glory. "The WGC was a box ticked but it also switched my brain off a little bit," he said. "That was a shame. I had been trying so hard to win hundreds of tournaments over there so when I did there was a huge sigh of relief. There shouldn't have been. I should have kept the pedal to the floor like Justin has. I didn't do it and I should have done."
A harsh line in self-judgement, which some may find surprising. Poulter is often viewed to be little more than a clothes horse, but he is, in fact, a workhorse. Saying that, he still takes what he wears seriously and yesterday he was on the range sweating on a tartan outfit which is "in transit" from China. The authorities need not worry. Poulter has resisted the temptation to go completely native.
"I haven't had a kilt made yet," he said. "I would consider playing in one and it would be hilarious but imagine the stick I would get. 'Poulter shoots 76 in a kilt – plays like a tart, looks like a tart'. I'm not sure lining a putt up in a kilt would be a good idea either. Even if I shot a 65, the phone lines would light up."
Strength in numbers
UK golfers in world's top 20 going into the last five Opens at St Andrews:
World ranking: 3 Lee Westwood
7 Luke Donald
8 Ian Poulter
9 Rory McIlroy
10 Paul Casey
11 Graeme McDowell
16 Justin Rose
US golfers: 6 Europeans: 10
15 Luke Donald
16 Darren Clarke
US: 10 Europeans: 4
4 Colin Montgomerie
5 Lee Westwood
17 Darren Clarke
US: 10 Europeans 5
3 Nick Faldo
8 Colin Montgomerie
17 Ian Woosnam
US: 8 Europeans: 5
2 Nick Faldo
6 Ian Woosnam
17 Ronan Rafferty
US: 9 Europeans: 6
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