Ian Poulter stood on the Whistling Straits stage, cocky, nonchalant, hand in pocket, big yellow and blue watch on his wrist, looking at the whole world as if he owned it.
Which he probably does a week every two years. This is Poulter’s domain, the Ryder Cup. At most tournaments, there are a large number of golfers whose insights and opinions are more important than Poulter’s.
He currently occupies last place in golf’s top 50. South African Garrick Higgo is No. 49. There are 14 American golfers who can’t make it to the US team and still rank higher in the world than Poulter.
Ian Poulter from Europe stood on the Whistling Straits stage and looked like he owned it
Yet none of them know as much about match play golf as the Englishman. None of them have played it at its level, with the same consistency, over a comparable span of time. Collin Morikawa has won two majors and four tournaments since the start of 2020, but honestly who cares now?
Tiger Woods was the player of a generation, but lost more Ryder Cup games than he won.
This is a match play tournament and there is no one better to talk to than Poulter right now. And he knows.
A few contemporaries have similar records, but Sergio Garcia is a big winner; Lee Westwood was the number 1 in the world. Their appearances in the Ryder Cup reflect their status in the game. Poulter has never won a major and finished in the top three of one at the 2008 Open.
He was last in the top 10 at a major at the 2010 Masters and in the top 25 at the 2019 Masters. He is bottom of the 24 Ryder Cup roster for distance from the tee.
Still, Poulter can shine as the daddy here, because on this podium he is.
Witness Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open Champion, following him in front of the cameras. Lowry spoke a good game, but his body language betrayed his status as a Ryder Cup rookie. Slightly closed in his posture, both hands thrust deep into his coat pockets in front of his body. He bore the weight of being a friend of the captain, and the choice of a captain.
Padraig Harrington is committing his tenure to Europe so as not to miss Justin Rose. Poulter is another pick from Harrington – and with less to justify it more than historic achievement.
Poulter is a choice of Padraig Harrington – and with less to justify it over historic achievement
Still, he seemed completely at ease, right at home here in Whistling Straits, despite missing the cut during his most recent big visit: the 2015 PGA Championship.
“In match play, you see the man,” Poulter explained. “When it’s match play, you know what to do on the first hole. You can control a match. You can dictate. You can play certain tricks to put pressure on your opponent.
“You really can’t do that in stroke play unless it’s in the back nine and the group you’re in is clear of the rest of the field. It means you are under pressure from the start. That just doesn’t happen in stroke play. You’ll slog your way into the tournament, but with this, it’s the back-nine Sunday mentality every time you hit a shot.
‘It’s a very simple form of golf. You never play the what-if game. You never look at options around the green, this is the right place to miss, here’s the wrong place to miss. It’s just a deliberate focus on your goal. Really simplified. You cannot expect par to win a hole. You have to expect to birdie everything to stand a chance of winning.
“Momentum has been key in every Ryder Cup I’ve ever played. The point is to maintain that momentum for as long as possible. It was a great ride for me and I’m never going to apologize for it. That’s how match play should be played.’
The Englishman missed the cut at Whistling Straits on his most recent major visit six years ago
There’s a story about Poulter at the 2008 Open, his closest miss. While on the 18th at Royal Birkdale over a tricky putt, he called over his caddy, Terry Mundy.
“Have you ever seen a putt win the Open, Terry?” asked Poulter. “Well, look at this one, because this is it.”
And he emptied the ball from 12 feet. Poulter was not to know that, as he spoke, Harrington was playing the back nine of his dreams to win the four-shot prize. Poulter equaled Harrington’s 69 that day. Mundy is still astonished at the confidence of a man who is willing to discuss the enormity of his challenge and then tackle it undisturbed.
“When Ian goes to a Ryder Cup, he thinks he’s a top dog,” said Pete Cowen, his swing coach. “That mentality is impossible to reproduce week after week on tour. It becomes his motto: pay attention.’
At Medinah in 2012, Poulter and Rory McIlroy were two behind Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner with six holes to play. If the game had gone as expected, the United States would have led 11-5 on Sunday’s base. The match would have been almost over. McIlroy birdied 13 to cut in half.
Poulter was the star man when Europe fought back in 2012 at the Miracle of Medinah
Poulter then birdied the five remaining holes in arguably the greatest game pass in recent Ryder Cup history. Europe took the point. The ‘Wonder of Medinah’ is the turning point in Europe from 10-6 behind in Sunday’s singles. But that miracle started on Saturday night at Poulter.
This is why Harrington chose him and chose Poulter over Rose. It’s a sobering look, a controversial decision and one that could be thrown to Europe’s captaincy next weekend if one of his picks doesn’t come true and Europe doesn’t win.
Why did he go with an almost romantic dependence on Europe’s glory boys? A strong case for Lowry can be seen given his recent achievements. But Poulter’s place requires indulgence and the belief that Peter Pan can also be a golfer.
Poulter was with the Europe team with cheesehead hats in practice on Wednesday
On the first tee in Whistling Straits on Wednesday, Team Europe arrived complete with cheesehead hats – headgear in the shape of a cheese triangle, made famous by fans of the local NFL franchise the Green Bay Packers. It got them a warm welcome and they responded by throwing their cheese heads at the crowd.
Except Poulter. His aim was so bad, his cheese head missed the biggest grandstand on the PGA circuit, knocked down some Ryder Cup signs and had to be pulled out of the rough.
He got it right for the second time, throwing the cheese head equivalent of three off the tee. Harrington can only hope his aim is better when the real action begins, as history suggests.