James Lawton: From 12 Ryder Cup heroes, Ian Poulter stands alone as Seve Ballesteros' successor

He had shown the most appetite for the challenge of turning back the sea of red

We may never see again quite the memorial to one sporting life which was literally written in the sky here as 12 European golfers created something inevitably to be known as the Miracle of Medinah.

But then if the message towed among the clouds commanded, "Do it for Seve," and each of the heroes wore his image and intoned his name as though it was part of some religious mantra, we should never forget the wider meaning of the 39th Ryder Cup.

Yes, indeed, it was an unforgettable gift to the memory of everything that Ballesteros had come to represent.

Yet if there were times when his presence seemed so tangible you might have imagined him striding over the crest of a fairway with all that intense and haughty promise of extraordinary deeds, there was a certain danger in all the reverence.

It was that we might just miss the fact that another new and shining monument was also being built.

This was to the capacity of the ancient game of golf to make new and sharply different types of heroes.

This, anyway, was one reaction here to the fact that when you moved from one superb performance to another you were left with the unlikeliest natural-born successor to the man who so brilliantly enriched the old contest.

You could so easily be distracted away from the immensely significant effort of Ian Poulter.

You could be diverted by the matador finish of the archetypal young Englishman Justin Rose which did for the American icon Phil Mickelson and would have so thrilled the man to whom it was dedicated.

There was the wonderful discipline of Luke Donald, who surely had never before given such a detailed account of why he was so recently ranked No 1 in the world.

How could you overlook the ferociously brilliant resurrection of veteran Paul Lawrie – or the eagerness with which Martin Kaymer and Francesco Molinari vied for the honour of performing the coup de grâce as the legions of American support melted away in the autumn sunshine?

Or the insouciant splendour of the late-coming Rory McIlroy as he put down the man who had elected himself the hammer of the Europeans, Keegan Bradley, and who had been described by the great Lee Trevino as "a Ryder Cup captain's dream hatchet man"?

You couldn't because if there was ever a deeply layered, astonishingly rounded team performance in a game made essentially for individual talent and strength of mind, it was this one which, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, imposed not only the greatest Ryder Cup comeback on foreign soil in 85 years of competition but also "Shock and Awe".

But then however fastidiously the litany of heroes is compiled, there should be no hardship in nominating the first among equals. It is, beyond the sliver of a shattered tee peg, the 36-year-old Poulter.

Poulter could enjoy a 100 triumphs of the kind he worked here at the Medinah Country Club without ever beguiling in the way of Ballesteros in one flash of mesmerising talent.

Such a gift to the sporting senses is simply not within his range. We do not have to track through all the controversies he has inflicted on more sensitive natures to say that even in his finest moments he is somewhat less than embraceable.

When he puckers and glowers and struts it is not so hard to remember that ultimately jarring statement apparently made from behind a straight face. You remember the one? "Don't get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens it will just be me and Tiger."

 

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There have been other irritants. Notoriously, he was pictured eating cereal from what captain Jose Maria Olazabal the other day described as the "lovely, golden Ryder Cup trophy".

Yet as the sun rose in Illinois, as the golf world contemplated a breakfast of celebration-stained champions, there was no question about who had shown most appetite for the challenge of turning back the sea of red that had so quickly enveloped the scoreboard before Sunday's singles action.

Yesterday he talked of the great personal fulfilment of the Ryder Cup, something that pleased him beyond all the good things that have come to him through golf after a less than opulent youth in Hertfordshire. Not only did it assuage the frustration of failed football ambition, and the disappointment of not wearing the shirt of Tottenham Hotspur, it gave him a sense of comradeship that he could never have imagined in his early strivings in a sport which most rewarded an obsessive interest in one's own game.

Poulter could only dream of the skills of a Ballesteros or a Tiger or a McIlroy, but what he could do – and these last few days he has reminded the world of golf with quite extraordinary force – is perform the most pressing obligation of all those who have sufficient talent to earn a living from professional sport.

He could drive himself beyond the point where he needed to fear that one day he might have to tell himself that he left too many things undone.

His Ryder Cup record was already a mighty affirmation of what can be achieved if you are ready to fight hard enough, if you simply refuse to accept that it is necessary to submit to superior talent. However, nothing could have prepared the understandably confident Americans, or the rest of golf, for the impact he delivered at the end of the second day of a contest which had become, in so many European eyes, the most forlorn of formalities. Poulter simply rejected the possibility of surrender.

Donald, who has his own impressive Ryder Cup record, was sure enough about the crucial switch of momentum which came when Poulter, partnering McIlroy in place of a plainly jaded Graeme McDowell, produced a run of five birdies in the fourball defeat of Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. It made the score 10-6 going into Sunday's action, which meant that no longer would the European challenge be unprecedented. In 1999, the Americans overcame precisely the same discouragement to deliver victory at Brookline.

Donald said: "I think that was the key to be honest. To get to 10-6, well you can't believe how much the optimism changed in our team room. We fed off that – and that was the difference."

On Sunday, the Americans sat together like a row of condemned men. They were shocked by the scale of their defeat and from their captain, Davis Love III, there was ready agreement that Poulter had been at the heart of the remarkable transformation. "Ian's hot streak gave them confidence and I know they built on that."

No, Poulter may not have been a man to naturally walk in the footsteps of the hero who brought such artistry and grace to the golf course, but if he didn't have the facility of Ballesteros, if he couldn't explore the game as a great warrior-artist, he could understand that it would always be his best means of defining himself.

When Ballesteros fought to retrieve something of his greatest days, when he was racked by back pain and tormented by the decline of his genius, he still came here to America in a vain search for the glory he had found at Augusta. Once, he was jeered at from the gallery along the second fairway after a failed tee shot. "Didn't that used to be Seve Ballesteros," was a sneer that is impossible to forget.

If any atonement was due, Ian Poulter enforced it here. He did more than most to conspicuously honour the memory of one of the greatest golfers the world had ever seen. He said that he accepted a duty to fight until all hope had gone. That brought a famous victory – and ennobled an entire sport.

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