Poulter channels Seve at Medinah
There have been times at the 2012 Ryder Cup when things have looked bleak for the European side. There was the morning session on Friday where Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley made pretty quick work of Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. Friday afternoon was bad too, as the Americans won three of a possible four points against Europe, when Jose Maria Olazabal’s matchup selections came into question. Saturday morning was even worse than Friday afternoon, with another Mickelson/Bradley trouncing, this time dominating Donald and Lee Westwood in a fashion that has only been seen twice in Ryder Cup history, as the two former world number ones went down 7 & 6.
By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, the U.S. were getting in a rhythm, up 8-4 with only 14.5 points needed to win the Ryder Cup on home soil. In the afternoon session, the only points that looked to be coming the way of Europe were thanks to Donald and Garcia, who were taking it to Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. Even if they held onto that lead, the U.S. would go into Sunday’s singles session with an 11-5 advantage, a near insurmountable gap to overcome. That’s when Ian Poulter took matters into his own hands. Poulter, who had already picked up two of his team’s four points despite sitting out Friday afternoon, put on an absolute clinical display of golf, from his ball striking to his red-hot putter. More impressive though was his demeanor.
Poulter is known for being brash and arrogant. He’s good and he knows it. The Ryder Cup is his venue, as his now 11-3 career record would suggest, and in case you didn’t know that already, he’ll be the first to tell you. This guy is different, he’s not wired the way most golfers are, or at least the way most golfers are perceived to be. Bubba Watson made waves yesterday encouraging the fans to make noise behind them during his opening tee shot. Poulter, never to be outdone when it comes to outlandish and ridiculous theatrics, asked the fans to do the same for him this morning when he teed off against Bubba. Through the cheers of “USA!!!, USA!!!”, Poulter teed off without batting an eye.
Then, when all the chips were down, he came through. First, it started with a birdie by playing partner Rory McIlroy on 13 to cut the deficit to only 1-down. Poulter sank a tough birdie putt on 14 to halve the hole, and after missing the drivable par-4 15th and landing in a bunker, Poulter hit a gorgeous shot to a couple of feet where the birdie was conceded. After a miss by competitor Jason Dufner, the score was back to level pegging for the first time since that opening tee shot. Another clutch birdie putt on 16 by Poulter after McIlroy missed his short par putt gave Europe the lead for the first time in the match, but the show was just beginning.
The par-3 17th is 193 yards long, over a massive body of water, and bunkers everywhere. Poulter steps up first and hits a great shot to the left of the flag and kicks right, and while McIlroy and Dufner missed the green to the left, Dufner’s partner Zach Johnson managed to get inside Poulter. No matter for the Englishman though, as he stepped up and drained the birdie putt, keeping the 1-up advantage. To the 18th, and with Dufner already in with a birdie, Poulter took his time analyzing the putt ahead. He stepped up and hit a confident stroke, knocking it in the center of the cup, as he had been doing all day. No matter what Dufner and Johnson threw at him, Poulter gave it right back and then some. With each quality shot and every sunk putt, Poulter’s reactions, with his body shaking and his eyes bugging out of his head, made even Keegan Bradley look normal. You could see on the faces of the other European players, McIlroy included, that not only was Poulter playing outstanding golf, he was giving them a much needed boost. I don’t usually believe in all of that stuff, but the mood and momentum definitely changed with Europe when Poulter went on his run, even if some of the players weren’t even on the course at the time.
Poulter has the ability to rub people the wrong way, and I get it, but at the tournament that made Seve Ballesteros even more famous to a North American audience, it’s fitting that this may do the same for Poulter. Seve’s famous likeness is stamped on the bags of all the European players this week, and when I was watching Poulter today, I couldn’t help but think of Seve and all that he’s meant to not only the Ryder Cup or Europe, but the game of golf in general. For all of Seve’s short game wizardry, he was just as well known because of his compete level and gamesmanship. That compete level and gamesmanship was on display on Saturday afternoon in a way that I haven’t seen on a golf course in a long time, and it came from Poulter. As I pointed out in my posts earlier this week, Poulter lives for this stuff. He’s a very good tournament player, without question, but the idea of going directly head-to-head with another player brings out the best in him. There’s a competitive edge there that you just don’t see on a weekly basis. Even if you take away the Ryder Cup aspect of the tournament, and just talk about straight match play, Poulter is a machine. His attitude and mannerisms, along with his completely unrelenting passion for the game can intimidate players, and even in situations where it doesn’t intimidate them, he’s good enough to flat outperform them as well. Look at today’s match. Johnson and Dufner did not back down one iota, and outside of one questionable decision by Johnson to attempt driving the par-4 15th, they didn’t really make any mistakes, nor did they seem flustered by what was going on around them. Poulter, and to a lesser extent, McIlroy, just beat them, and along with Garcia and Donald, gave a little bit of air to a sagging European side.
Tomorrow, Europe goes into battle down 10-6, the same score that the United States faced in 1999 when they staged the most famous comeback in golf history, stunning the Europeans at Brookline. Seve may not be here to guide them at Medinah, but Poulter gave them unexpected life and a chance at victory on Saturday. At the Ryder Cup, as both Poulter and Seve would tell you, all you need is a chance.