- Ian Potler has a great Ryder Cup record and looks confident again this year
- The world number 50 was chosen as one of the captains of Padraig Harrington
- Polter inspired the 2012 Medina miracle, when Europe fought for victory
- When all goes well on Friday, he would like to be Europe’s star man again
Ian Poulter stood on the Whistling Straits podium, cocky, casual, hand in a pocket, the big yellow and blue watch on his wrist, looking at the whole world like he was the master of the place.
Which, for a week every two years, he probably does. This is Poulter’s domain, the Ryder Cup. Most tournaments have multiple golfers whose insight and opinion counts ahead of Poulter’s.
He is currently ranked last in golf’s top 50. Garrick Higo of South Africa is at number 49. There are 14 American golfers who cannot make the USA team, enjoying a higher world ranking than Poulter.
Europe’s Ian Poulter stood on the Whistling Straits podium, looking like he owned the place
Yet none of them know as much about matchplay golf as the Englishman. None of them have played it at their level, with the same consistency, during the same amount of time. Colin Morikawa has won two majors and four tournaments since the start of 2020 but right now, clearly, who cares?
Tiger Woods was a player of a generation but he lost more Ryder Cup matches than he won.
This is a matchplay tournament and there is no one better than Poulter to talk about it. And he knows it.
Few contemporaries have comparable records, but Sergio García is a major winner; Lee Westwood was world No. His performance in the Ryder Cup reflects his position in the game. At the 2008 Open, Poulter has never won a major and on a single occasion finished inside the top three.
He was inside the top 10 in a major at the 2010 Masters and inside the top 25 at the Masters in 2019. He is at the bottom of the roster of 24 Ryder Cup players for distance to tee.
Yet Poulter can swoon like a daddy here, because he’s at this stage.
Witness Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion, chasing him in front of the cameras. Lowry spoke of a good game, but his body language betrayed his status as a Ryder Cup rookie. Slightly closed in their stance, both hands fell deep into the pockets of his jacket in front of his body. He carried the burden of being the captain’s friend, and the choice of a captain to boot.
Padraig Harrington is betting his term on Europe, not missing Justin Rose. Poulter is another Harrington pick – and little to justify it beyond a historical achievement.
Poulter is a Padraig Harrington pick – and with little beyond historical achievement to justify it
Yet he seemed perfectly comfortable, utterly at home here in Whistling Straits, despite making the cut in his most recent major trip: the 2015 PGA Championship.
‘With matchplay, you see that guy,’ Poulter explained. ‘When it’s matchplay, you know what you have to do when you tee-up on the first hole. You can control a match. You can dictate. You can play a few shots to put your opponent under pressure.
‘You can’t do that in strokeplay, really, unless it comes to the last nine and the group you’re in isn’t clear from the rest of the field. It means you are under pressure from the beginning. This doesn’t happen in strokeplay. You work your way into the tournament but, with that said, every time you tee up it’s the mindset of the ninth Sunday.
‘It’s a very simple form of golf. You never play the what-if game. You never see the options around green, here’s the right place to miss, here’s the wrong place to miss. It’s just one-minded focus on your goal. Really simplified. You can’t expect to win a hole in a draw. You have to expect to birdie on everything to have a chance to win.
“Momentum has been important in every Ryder Cup I have played so far. It’s about maintaining that level of speed for the longest period of time you possibly can. It has been a great journey for me and I will never apologize for it. That’s how matchplay should be played.
The Englishman missed the cut across the Whistling Straits on his most recent major voyage six years ago
The 2008 Open has a story about Poulter, her closest miss. Standing on a hard driveway at the Royal Birkdale on the 18th, he called his caddy, Terry Mundy.
‘Have you ever seen a putt to win the Open, Terry?’ Poulter asked. ‘Well, take a look at this, because that’s what it is.’
And he drained the ball from 12 feet. Poulter did not know that, as he was speaking, Harrington was playing the last nine of his dreams to take the prize by four shots. Poulter equaled Harrington’s 69 that day. Mundi is still amazed at the confidence of a man who is willing to talk about the enormity of his challenge, and then executes on it to no avail.
“When Ian goes to the Ryder Cup he thinks he’s top dog,” said his swing coach Pete Cowen. ‘It’s impossible to reproduce that mindset week after week on tour. This becomes his motto: Just look at me.’
In Medina in 2012, Poulter and Rory McIlroy were two below Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner, with six holes to play. Had the game gone as expected, the United States would have gone 11-5 in Sunday’s singles. The match would have been as good as it had ended. McIlroy made the half with 13 birdies.
Poulter was the star man when Europe fought back in 2012 at the Miracle of Medina
Poulter then birdied the remaining five holes, arguably the biggest game in recent Ryder Cup history. Europe obeyed. The ‘Miracle of Medina’ Europe turnaround is down 10-6 in Sunday’s singles. But that miracle began with Polter on Saturday evening.
That is why Harrington chose him, preferring Polter over Rose. Seen objectively, this is a controversial decision and could still be thrown at the Europe captain if any of his choices fail to deliver and Europe does not win.
Why did he go with an almost romantic reliance on the proud boys of Europe? Given Lowry’s recent achievements, a strong case can be made for him. Yet Poulter’s place requires indulgence and faith can be a Peter Pan golfer too.
Poulter was included in the team for Europe wearing a cheesehead hat in practice on Wednesday
At 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 local NFL franchise Green Bay Packers. This gave him a warm welcome and he responded by throwing his cheese in front of the crowd.
Except for Poulter. His goal was so lousy, his cheesehead missed the biggest stand on the PGA circuit, ripped off some Ryder Cup signage and had to be retrieved from the rough.
He got it right the second time around, cheesehead-tossing the equivalent of three off the tee. Harrington can only hope that his goal will be better when real action begins, as history suggests it will.