Ryder Cup 2021: Love or loathe him, Ian Poulter is always Europe's man to beat
Picture the scene. It is September 1999 and the 33rd Ryder Cup is taking place at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Along with some friends, a 23-year-old by the name of Ian Poulter is 3,300-miles east inside a hostelry in Leicester Square, London, one of a large crowd sitting in front of a big-screen television.
All is well until a premature parade of American players, caddies and wives stampede across the 17th green in the wake of Justin Leonard holing his (in)famous 40-foot putt to all but clinch the biennial contest for the home side. All of which occurred before Jose Maria Olazabal was belatedly afforded a legitimate opportunity to halve the hole and extend the proceedings.
Outraged by what he saw as the injustice of it all and screaming at the top of his voice, Poulter leaps up onto a table. An exact transcript is unavailable at this time, but the gist of the ensuing tirade was that revenge would soon enough be his. He would sort out the Yanks when he got the chance. One day he would be wearing Europe’s colors. There was no doubt in his mind, despite the fact that, at the time, Poulter was a relatively impecunious member of the European Challenge Tour. Only a couple of years before, he was selling confectionery in the pro shop at Leighton Buzzard Golf Club.
So it was in him even then, the relentless self-belief and the chest-pounding passion that has made the more mature Poulter the man most Americans fear in the Ryder Cup. For Europe, he is “the postman,” the player who almost always delivers. In six Ryder Cups, Poulter's overall record is 14-6-2 (though he's 2-3-2 in his last two appearances), and he's undefeated in singles (5-0-1). Among those he's beaten on Sunday: Dustin Johnson in 2018, current U.S. captain Steve Stricker (2008) and Matt Kuchar (2010).
In 2010 at Celtic Manor, Poulter went as far as “guaranteeing” his singles point against Kuchar, who had been just about America’s best player to that point. No matter. Poulter said he would win. He guaranteed it, putting himself squarely in the firing line. It is hard to think of another player who would do that.
“Ian has a cocky vibe about him,” says Billy Horschel, winner of last week's BMW PGA Championship before th WGC-Dell Match Play champion in March. “When he gets going, he can beat anyone. He has that mentality. He always has. And he’s never lost it. Even when the game is beating him up, he feels like he is the best player. He thinks he can beat anyone. He’s not the guy you want to play. … He grinds stuff out. He pisses you off. He gets in your head. That is Ian to a tee. And that’s why he is so great.”
That he is, especially in the match-play environment embodied by the Ryder Cup.
“Ian is a just a remarkable human being,” concludes Terry Mundy, his longtime caddie. “He just has a different mentality. Let’s say he misses the green with a wedge in a tournament. He’ll be thinking, ‘what the hell was that? I’ve missed the green, now I might drop a shot.’ But in match play Ian is thinking he can chip-in—which is not what the opposition expects—and win the hole.
“It’s a whole different attitude. He understands match play completely. I wouldn’t want to play him. No matter how he is playing, he’s the little Jack Russell snapping around your heels. He is exactly the guy you don’t want to play. He gives you nothing. You have to ‘kill’ him to beat him.”
Ian Poulter acknolwedges fans during the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
Lee Westwood is on the same wavelength.
“When I look at Poults I see a great match player,” says the now 11-time member of European teams. “He’s the kind of person I would hate to be drawn against. He plays on the image and portrayal everyone has given him. He almost has a trademark now. He’s one of those guys you don’t want to play. He’s so dogmatic. And he’s a wonderful putter. That pisses people off and wears them down. He gets in your head. Seve was the same. They do things you don’t expect. And you’re still thinking about it two holes later.”
Yes, yes. But there’s more to this phenomenon than just a polished expertise in the dark art of match-play golf. Many others have owned that talent. But Poulter is different, on another level. For most players, the Ryder Cup is an ambition and, once achieved, a memory to savor and reflect on in one’s dotage.
Judging by his eye-bulging reaction to yet another holed putt in the trans-Atlantic bunfight, the matches mean more to the 45-year-old Englishman. Much more. They permeate his very soul. Cut him and he bleeds blue and gold.
“Ian gets more out of being part of a team than anyone I’ve ever seen, which results in better performances,” says Paul McGinley, who captained a European side including Poulter to victory at Gleneagles in 2014. “He knows that he can play his best and not win, or that he can play poorly. But the team can still win. He’s selfless in that respect. He doesn’t seem too concerned with his own play. He just wants the team to win. And, as a result, he plays better.”
Which brings us to the ultimate question: Just what possesses Ian James Poulter when he steps out of his phone booth wearing a European cape? Even the man himself struggles to find the definitive answer.
“It’s the unique enjoyment of team spirit and what that is all about,” he says. “You can’t ooze that week-in and week-out. You just can’t. It’s not possible. There is something special about being a team player, being inspired by that and in turn inspiring others. So what comes out in me is something that is not repeatable in a regular tournament. The switch gets clicked as soon as it is ‘go time.’ It’s just a different mode. I walk down a different path. It’s the yellow brick road.”
A hard road too, the beginnings of which might just offer a clue to Poulter’s unparalleled Old World animation. He’s come a long way, baby.
Ian Poulter celebrates with his son Luke after Europe won the 2018 Ryder Cup.
“Ian has an enormous amount of patriotism and pride,” says Tim Barter of Sky Sports, who has interviewed Poulter ‘hundreds of times.’ “He has come from relatively humble beginnings as a golfer. He always has a point to prove. He’s a guy a lot of people have dismissed. But he aspired to be a tour pro. And he looked at the Ryder Cup back then and wanted it more than anything else.”
Part of that ambition is perhaps that it was and is more realistic than, say, winning a major. Poulter has never been the best golfer on the planet. He has never been a superior ball-striker. He has never been one of the longest off the tee. Given all that, making a team of 12 has to be more achievable than becoming the top-one at any of golf’s four biggest events.
“Ian is never going to be the best player in the team,” says Andrew Coltart, a member of the ’99 European side. “We all know that. But he doesn’t have to be. He is the best at psyching someone out, the best at fronting up. Match play is all about that.”
Indeed, talk to just about anyone in and around the European Tour about Poulter and that theme soon emerges. Contrary to his widely held public image—one that erroneously accuses him of an attitude not far short of ego-mania—the father of four is the ultimate team player. Which is ironic. For a man who is the ultimate “peacock” when it comes to on-course garb, his best golf has been played wearing the same gear as everyone else.
“Ian loves winning,” says former European No. 1 Robert Karlsson, who will serve as an assistant to European skipper Padraig Harrington later this month. “He thrives on it. He likes attention, which is at its height when he plays in the Ryder Cup. And match play is perfect for the way he plays. He is less worried about losing a hole than he is by the thought of accumulating a big number in stroke play. He has the perfect mentality. But it goes beyond style of play. It fits his personality. Look at the way he dresses. Look at the cars he drives. He wants to be seen. And the Ryder Cup is his stage.”
“‘Just watch me’ is Ian’s motto,” agrees Pete Cowen, Poulter’s swing coach. “When he goes to a Ryder Cup he thinks he is top dog. That’s another mindset, one that is impossible to reproduce week to week on tour.”
Strangely, however, the off-course Poulter at a Ryder Cup is again a different animal. Yes, he is the man behind the blaring music—“Anything with a loud beat,” says caddie Billy Foster—that typically permeates the European locker room, but beyond that noise, Poulter doesn’t have much to say. He isn’t the loud cheerleader, more the introspective guy in the corner.
“When we go to team meetings—and I’ve been to many with Ian in the room—he is the guy who sits with the hoodie over his head,” McGinley says. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. Everyone thinks he’s a ‘Braveheart” kind of guy. But he’s not standing on chairs or tables. He’s not shouting at everyone and getting them going. He’s the opposite. He says very little. He’s quiet. He listens. He’s very much part of it, but there is a real focus about him in those meetings.”
It is that intensity that transfers from locker room to course every two years. But, as good a career as Poulter has amassed—he owns a total of 13 victories on the PGA Tour and European Tour—he hasn't been able to reproduce the same level of performance to order. It is seemingly an elusive quality, one reserved almost solely for the Ryder Cup. Why is the mystery.
“If anyone has the answer to that question, I want to hear about it,” Mundy says. “It would be nice if it could turn up a few more weeks each year. It is just something about that week for Ian. The intensity goes up, right from the word go. Every other week, he’s going through the motions relatively. And if he finds something to get into contention, he’s off again. It’s probably not there Thursday and Friday, but at the Ryder Cup he arrives with ‘Sunday afternoon in contention’ intensity. And for whatever reason, his putter hears about it.”
Ah yes, the putting. As Horschel mentioned, Poulter has a spooky and incredibly annoying—for his opponent—ability to keep making putts at vital moments. The ultimate example, of course, is the birdie burst with which he finished a Saturday afternoon four-ball match at Medinah in 2012. Paired with Rory McIlroy, Poulter made crucial birdie putts on each of the last five greens to “steal” a point for Europe.
Here’s the thing though. Yes, Poulter has a great putting stroke in a technical sense. Many on tour do though. Yet again, what sets him apart in a Ryder Cup environment is meta-physical in nature and almost impossible to define. Even those who truly understand putting struggle to answer that one.
Ian Poulter celebrates with fans after Europe's win in the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris.
Let’s face it, in pressure moments it’s not technique that stands tallest. It’s the person. It’s about the nervous system, which controls hand-eye coordination. And how you respond to that environment. So it’s more about the player than the technique. Poulter performs under pressure. He wills putts into the hole.
“I’m not sure there is anything in Ian’s stroke that stands out especially,” says putting coach Phil Kenyon, who works with a host of top players. “He’s no different from anyone else at his level. How well he putts in the Ryder Cup is more about his personality. He just revels in it. He has such a positive mindset. He talks himself into holing putts.
“For example, at the 2008 Open, Padraig won and Ian was second. But on the 72nd green, Ian had a 12-foot putt that might have been for the win. At which point he calls Terry over to take a look. ‘Have you ever seen a putt to win the Open?’ asked Ian. ‘Well, this is it.’ How amazing is it that he had the presence of mind to go there at that moment? And he made the putt. That’s what makes him special. I’m not sure you can teach that.”
Still, for all the clearly fine qualities he brings to the Ryder Cup, Poulter’s influence goes beyond his individual performance in the sense that he inspires those around him by his very presence. They feel the love that that he has for them.
“The secret sauce that Ian has is applicable to any player,” McGinley says. “But he has it. He gets so excited by being part of a team and having teammates. He loves the concept of shared responsibility. I know many guys feel more pressure when they are part of a team. They don’t want to let anyone else down. But Ian feels the opposite. He is unburdened by the sense of shared responsibility.”
Still, for all that those around him have their theories, the mystery of Ian Poulter and his elevated performance level at the Ryder Cup continues. Even Mundy is perplexed by its complexity and elusiveness.
“If you get to the bottom of this, get back to us,” he asks. “We’d love to know. We’ve talked about it for 15 years. There is no way Ian hits the first fairway at a regular event, just misses the green to the right, chips in for birdie and goes running around the green pumping his chest. He’s not going to do that. He’s going to walk to the next tee thinking, ‘that was a result.’
“But in the first hole of a Ryder Cup—and the opponent is sitting 10 feet away—a chip-in is massive. That’s the bottom line. Ian loves that feeling. The problem is he can’t pretend to be playing a match when he’s not. He can’t kid himself on. Stroke play is about plodding into contention; match play is going for it.”
So it is that the last word belongs to Tommy Fleetwood, who will be making his second Ryder Cup appearance for Europe at Whistling Straits. Asked what “possesses” Poulter in the biennial contest, his perhaps definitive response was short and to the point.