Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands

What's Not To Like?

By Rich Lerner Photos by Dom Furore
May 02, 2010

I distinctly remember what I thought when I saw Ian Poulter in those Union Jack trousers at the British Open in 2004. Instead of wearing your country's flag, how about raising it in victory? It was hard to take him seriously. Six years later, Poulter, 34, is more than a sartorial sideshow. People who snickered when Poulter said in 2008 that he hadn't played to his potential yet and that "when that happens, it will just be me and Tiger," must now consider it a possibility. Smashing perceptions has been standard for Poulter for a long time, but if there's one thing I've learned being around him for the past couple of years, it's that he's more humble than arrogant. The adage that clothes make the man might apply to Poulter, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

One of your pro-am partners told me after your round that Ian Poulter was not the cocky, arrogant tour player he expected. People misjudge you, don't they?

The people I spend time with can make a true judgment. Others will form their own opinions.

Maybe the flashy clothes work against you.

I dress this way because I want to look smart. I got a kick out of watching Payne Stewart, and I want to express myself in my own way. I don't want wrinkles in my pants, I want my shirts pressed, I want new shoes and new gloves, and then I want to do my job to the best of my ability. People who mock me don't know the real Ian Poulter.

You don't seem bothered by what people say.

I didn't give a hoot when I was the only kid playing golf at school and the other kids singled me out. I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be. I haven't given two monkeys what people say.

You started as an assistant club pro. How does a 4-handicapper selling candy bars in the shop become a top-10 golfer in the world?

Being very single-minded, self-motivated and believing in yourself. If anybody who knew a lot about golf saw my game when I was 18 they never would've said I'd become a great player. I've just been ruthless in my mind and continued to say I'm going to achieve this. Anyone who applies themselves in the right way can achieve anything. You have as much right as anyone.

Where does your confidence come from?

I guess from my dad, who's an engineer. He played football and had some trials with a couple of decent clubs but didn't quite make it. He was pretty handy at most sports, and he never particularly liked losing. I guess I've got some of that in me. I don't think it's a bad thing to not enjoy losing. He drilled that in me at an early age. It's not just about taking part in something; it's about competition -- and winning.

Take us back to the incident with Anthony Kim during the Ryder Cup Matches in 2008. You and Graeme McDowell were playing Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk on Saturday when you and Kim came together. What happened?

He bumped into me as I was coming off a tee box. I wouldn't want to make a big deal out of it. There's a lot of passion at the Ryder Cup, but at the end of the day -- win, lose or draw -- we're all friends. But you're willing to do anything to win.

Have you spoken to him since then? Many times. No hard feelings, no animosity. We've played together. He's a great player with massive potential, young and strong, and he'll be a big factor for a long time.

Now that you've won a World Golf Championships event, perhaps a major is next. Where are you most likely to win your first?

I've driven the ball straight and feel I have a chance at a U.S. Open, and I get a massive kick out of playing so many different shots in links golf. But I really love the way Augusta National plays. I like the difficulty of the short game and the strategy required to win there.

How many times have you played Pebble Beach?

Never played it, never seen it. I'll probably go the weekend before. I didn't want to play in the [AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am] this year because the fairways and rough wouldn't be the same, and it just wouldn't have the same vibe. I didn't want to go there and then come back and be surprised in June.

I'm amazed a player of your caliber has never played Pebble.

I've played it on PlayStation many times.

Any added incentive knowing that a European hasn't won a U.S. Open since England's Tony Jacklin 40 years ago?

Not really.

Was Jacklin an important figure for a young English golfer?

His era came before I even watched golf on television, but he was one of the guys people wanted to emulate.

Was the U.S. Open a tournament you watched while growing up in England?

Not that much. The Masters, yes, but the U.S. Open not quite as much.

Which U.S. Open is unforgettable for you?

Just Payne Stewart in 1999. I was a huge Payne Stewart fan. I bought a lovely picture of Payne in that famous pose after he made the winning putt at Pinehurst.

You were a European tour rookie the last time the Open was played at Pebble Beach and didn't play in 2000. What do you remember about Tiger's 15-shot victory?

To win any tournament by 15, let alone a U.S. Open, it was a clinic of the highest order. He embarrassed the rest of the field.

What do you make of the Tiger saga?

It's his private life, and I don't know him away from the golf course. The only Tiger I know is No. 1 in the world, the most ruthless person I've ever seen, the most focused person I've ever seen. I don't understand how you hole 30-foot putts time and again. It's freaky. Defies all logic.

You've had a house at Lake Nona in Orlando for several years, but 2009 was the first year you lived there full-time with your wife and kids. Why?

I'd been playing the tour for five years, and it was tiring to go back and forth across the pond. So I asked Katie to give it a try, bring the kids over. It's worked out great; I've had my best year ever.

What do you like about America?

The relaxed living is nice, the fact that you can spend a lot of time outside, how family-oriented it is at Lake Nona. Getting home on a Sunday night is also nice.

You're OK with your kids growing up in America?

I don't see it as a problem, really.

Do they play golf?

Aimee-Leigh [8] and Luke [5] play a little. Luke is very sports-oriented. He loves anything with a ball, whether it's American football, baseball or golf. He's got something of me in him. He loves to win, and, fortunately, he can't stand losing. I enjoy that, and I like the passion he shows when he loses. I see that as a huge plus. That will make him get better at whatever he wants to do.

And Aimee-Leigh?

She's very into pets, clothes and occasionally sport when I can tempt her enough to get the clubs out. She's so talented when she tries, and has a beautiful swing.

Tell us about Katie.

Katie's the best mom in the world. We've been together 14 years, and she's amazing. She's very passionate about the kids, and with me away so much it's very important for the kids to have a mom like Katie.

You have four season tickets for the Orlando Magic. Do you prefer basketball or English football?

It's still football for me. Arsenal has been my team since I was a kid. My dad's always been a fan, and he got a shirt on me at the age of 5. I'm still a season-ticket holder, but my dad uses those seats since I'm never back in the U.K. But being in the U.S. full-time, I've turned into a big Magic fan. I like the atmosphere in the arena. It's electric, and the kids really enjoy it.

Who's the best NBA player you've seen?

Kobe's the best because of his ability to knock down shots with hands in his face when the clock is running down. It's pretty impressive.

If you were a hoops player, who would you be?

LeBron. Mentally strong, likes to take on tough shots and rises to the occasion.

What's the last book you read? I read the life and times of Muhammad Ali. I'm a huge Ali fan. I was struck by how caring and giving he is, what he did for others. He was outspoken and confident.

Is there something about the American spirit and character that you admire?

I like how patriotic Americans are. We could do more of that in the U.K.

Getting back to golf, how often do your pro-am partners try to out-Poulter you?

Oh, plenty have gotten overly excited and gone the full nine yards, showing up in the most outrageous outfit they can find. They say, "What do you expect, we're playing with you!" We have a good laugh.

Describe the worst-dressed pro-am partner you've seen.

There've been so many I can't single out one poor sod.

Do you cringe when you see a guy show up in khakis?

I guess they're busy people and don't have time to shop.

What fashion mistake do men often make?

To not have any color coordination at all -- the navy trousers with black belt and brown shoes and green hat. That happens quite a bit. If I go out in black on black people call me out. They'll say, "What's with the outfit?" They always want me to be loud and shoutin'. But I do hate to be predictable. I like to mix it up.

You made a run at the British Open at Birkdale in 2008 before finishing second. How do you think winning that would've changed your life?

I really don't know. I'd like to keep the mystery so when it happens I can enjoy it even more.

RICH LERNER is a commentator and essayist for the Golf Channel.