Ranking makes a major difference

Ryder Cup 2004: Ian Poulter
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The Independent Online

The number 42 is not quite life, the universe and everything for Ian Poulter, but it is not far off. Finishing the year in 42nd place on the world rankings, combined with his fifth place on the European Order of Merit, means Poulter will be playing in all the majors and world championship events in 2004.

"This is the first time that I have been able to sit down and plan a full schedule for the year," said the 27-year-old Englishman. "I know where I'm going, what I'm doing and where I'm staying. It's a totally different feeling knowing I can plan everything out.

"I am playing in all the big tournaments, some that I haven't played in before. In the past I have been trying to qualify for events like The Open. I'd maybe play five weeks in a row and then only get in at Loch Lomond and go straight off to The Open. This year I can plan whether I want to play the week before or have a week practising and make sure I go to the majors happy with my game."

Of course, there is one event Poulter cannot yet put on his schedule. It is in September and it is the Ryder Cup, which will be played at Oakland Hills in Detroit. In 2001, when the qualifying was taking place for the match at The Belfry which was eventually played in 2002, Poulter finished 11th on the points table. It earned him a phone call from Sam Torrance to say he was on standby, but no more glory than that.

Three years on and Poulter has three good reasons to be more optimistic about qualifying. He is a much-improved player, having worked hard with David Leadbetter at the start of 2003 and seen the results of that effort come in the form of victories in the Wales Open and the Nordic Open.

Secondly, now that he is playing in all the big-money events, there are more points available to him. Lastly, he knows where he went wrong in 2001. "I made mistakes," he admitted. "I was in a good position early on and put myself under pressure to keep playing. This year the key is to be ready to play my best when I go to tournaments. I won't be playing every week but I can hopefully get the best out of the weeks I do play."

There is another incentive in that there will be a number of potential rookies trying to make the team, not least his friend Justin Rose. "There is definitely going to be a change in the team with the younger generation coming through. We are all good mates and I'm sure we will spur each other on.

"I would very much like to make the team. I know if I can continue to play as I did in the second half of last season then it should take care of itself."

Having not come through the amateurs, Poulter got his first experience of team competition at the Seve Trophy in November. "I really enjoyed the week and being in a team. It was good to experience playing twice a day and going to team meetings and feeling part of something. I imagine the Ryder Cup is just much bigger and more intense. It was good to be able to talk with people like Lee Westwood and find out about what it is like."

Poulter's season will start on 2 January when he goes to Lake Nona for an intensive week's practice with Leadbetter. "I'm not looking to change anything, just keep doing what I've been doing. I really felt last year I was playing how I wanted to play. It will be good to get back to practising hard after a few weeks off."

His first tournament will be in South Africa, and in February he will play in the World Matchplay at La Costa for the first time. But the early part of the season will be building up to his first appearance in the Masters. He will be playing at Bay Hill and the Players' Championship but also hopes to go to Augusta a couple of times with Rose prior to Masters week.

"Justin did that last year and said it helped. I want to get over the 'wow' factor so that when I arrive for the tournament I can get down to business. It is going to be a special week, because I am flying out the whole family to come and watch me play."

There will also be a debut in the US Open and, as the old saying goes, you have to be in them to win them. "It's going to be a busy season but an exciting one. If my golf keeps improving then I could have a chance in a major, and the more majors you play, the better chance you have."