Poulter's bold strides back up his boast
New world No 5 is living up to his infamous 'just me and Tiger' claim. James Corrigan uncovers the man behind the loud trousers
Tuesday 23 February 2010
The world now realises there has been more than one deluded soul clinging these last few years to the promise of a future featuring "just me and Tiger". But for Ian Poulter, the fantasy seems more attainable than ever after his glory in Arizona.
Two years ago this month, Poulter's infamous statement was printed in a British golfing magazine – "The trouble is I just don't rate anyone else... I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens it will be just me and Tiger." The European Tour happened to be in Dubai when Golf World hit the shelves and very soon the offending page was copied and passed along the range.
The reaction among the pros was one of hilarity mixed in with inevitable indignation. Who, exactly, did Poulter think he was? He was outside the world's top 20, had been a professional for 13 years, had not won for two years and as an average ball-striker was already reckoned an overachiever. The claim was as preposterous as his trousers. And didn't his peers let him know it.
Even Tiger Woods, himself, got in on the ribbing, marching on to the range the next time he saw Poulter and saying: "Morning, No 2." Poulter took it all on his designer-stubbled chin, just like he had the rest of the baiting, and before too long he and Tiger had established their own little routine. "Morning No 2," would go the greeting. "Morning No 1," would go Poulter's response.
Well, when and if Woods returns from his indefinite break the exchange will not sound so nearly as contrived – if contrived at all. At No 5, Poulter could be but one more big win from climbing into the world's top two. In the 24 months since, Poulter has backed up the self-praise with self-improvement. Runner-up placings in The Open and The Players (aka, the fifth major) as well as top-point scorer status in the last Ryder Cup; the summit-seeker was on the ascent.
Dove Mountain at last saw him peak as he beat his compatriot Paul Casey to win England its first World Golf Championship and thus become the country's most prestigious champion since Nick Faldo in the Masters 14 years ago. Not the worst time to reflect on declarations past.
"I think everybody chuckled slightly when he said it," commented Casey, who left Tucson as runner-up for the second time in as many years. "But deep down I think a lot of us knew how hard he works and knew that it wasn't that much of an outrageous statement. If Ian believed that – and he does – then there's no reason why he couldn't get to that spot. For me it's not about talent, it's about work ethic and belief. And Ian's worked incredibly hard."
There is no doubt, Poulter is self-made. There was no American university education for this son of a market trader who worked selling Mars bars as an assistant pro at a public course and turned pro as a teenager with a handicap of four. As he failed to win his card, year after year, few gave him a prayer, let alone anything as substantial as a break. But he stuck at it and, eventually, European Tour status arrived. So did the trophies. Poulter lifted silverware in each of his first five seasons and made his Ryder Cup debut in 2004. It wasn't enough. Stateside was where it was at and the young father was not about to park his fancy slacks on his laurels.
"This is why this, my first American win, means so much," said Poulter, after collecting the £900,000 first prize. "Six years of hard work, changing my residency, moving my family across to live in America ... to finally win over here just means everything. It's just so satisfying to be able to finally say 'I'm a winner on the PGA Tour'."
He is not any old winner, neither. Not Mr Nondescript from Nowheresville. Poulter has always possessed the ability to grasp the headlines, although for so long that was because of what he said, or originally because of what he wore. He first became known to the world at large with his Union Flag trousers at the 2004 Open at Troon. Ever since the one-on-one interviews have focused on the strides he wore in his profession rather than the strides he took. The hecklers, meanwhile, have remained just as fixated.
"I think I've had an interesting ride from a lot of people's point of view of how I present myself, as opposed to how well I can actually perform," he said. "So I guess it's very pleasing to be in this position now. No 5 in the world stands for so much more than what I wear on the golf course."
To be fair, Poulter has perpetuated the sartorial myth, setting up his own design company. In many respects, however, that is merely the 34-year-old doing it for himself, just as he does everything for himself. While he is one of the very few players in the world's top 50 who doesn't employ a mind coach, he is the only one who doesn't use a swing coach either. Poulter videos himself in practice, plays it back and makes the adjustments accordingly. It is one of the skills garnered from his traditional PGA training.
Yet, there are some things that can't be taught and, although he has put in the hours on the practice greens at his gated-community home in Orlando, his touch on and around the putting surface has always been his meal ticket. On Sunday, he ate up the greens, spitting out Casey as he did so. "My short game this week has been as good as it's ever been," said Poulter. "In fact the last 12 months it's been up there with the very best of them."
This quality establishes the Englishman as a clear and present danger in the forthcoming majors. With his Ryder Cup berth already secured, this has to be the next step for Poulter. And for Britain. With three members in the top six, there is no reason why the majorless run should continue. Indeed, with this level of representation in the elite, the 11-year drought is beginning to look absurd.
"An Englishman hasn't won a major for a long time," said Poulter. "It's about time the guys who have put themselves in positions four, five and six in the world stepped up to the plate and delivered on that." Living up to your outrageous promise and the outrageous promises you set. It's what Poulter is all about.
World rankings: Latest standings
1......... Tiger Woods (US)......... 12.60 ave pts
2......... Steve Stricker (US)......... 7.93
3......... Phil Mickelson (US)......... 7.68
4......... Lee Westwood (Eng)......... 7.04
5......... Ian Poulter (Eng)......... 6.31
6......... Paul Casey (Eng)......... 6.03
7......... Jim Furyk (US)......... 5.35
8......... Martin Kaymer (Ger)......... 5.30
9......... Rory McIlroy (NI)......... 5.00
10......... Padraig Harrington (Ire)......... 4.93
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