FOR any American unlucky enough to be drawn against Ian Poulter in the Ryder Cup, the message is clear: be afraid, be very afraid. The man who morphs into something of a cartoon character for these transatlantic jousts admits that even he is frightened by television replays of his emotional outbursts.
The staring eyes, the fist-pumps, the geeing up of the crowd, all were at their intimidating best two years ago, when he single-handedly set up the so-called Miracle of Medinah with a ferocious, fire-breathing performance that has gone down in Ryder Cup history.
Asked yesterday if it was scary, watching highlights of his antics that day, the Englishman replied: “Yes, very scary.”
And what about his children? What do they make of daddy’s famous alter ego? “I think they’re scared,” he smiled, ever the pantomime villain.
If Poulter does not exactly don a cape in the nearest telephone box, there is no denying his transformation when the Ryder Cup comes round. A good golfer, but not a great one – he needed a wild card for this year’s match at Gleneagles – the 38-year-old, who has yet to win a major, plays like a man possessed when he turns out for Europe.
Martin Kaymer, his German team-mate, says Poulter is “different” at the Ryder Cup. Justin Rose, who has practised with him this week, suspects that another volcanic performance could be set to emerge from nowhere. “I know people say he hasn’t had a great season, but he’s on the verge of playing very, very well,” said Rose. “He just needs a spark, and that spark could well be the Ryder Cup.”
Knowing Poulter, it will be a forest fire. That is why the European players regard him as the talisman in their midst. They see something in him now that they don’t see during the other 51 weeks of the year, qualities that he attributes to the unique environment. “I’m part of a team,” he explains. “I guess they don’t get to see that for long periods of time between the Ryder Cups. I want to help out. I’m proud to put an arm round someone, pump them up, get them going. I loved my football as a kid, and I’m kind of reliving those football moments as a golfer now. I played football back in the day like I play golf right now.”
While some, mostly from the US, want the Ryder Cup played only every three years, Poulter can’t get enough of it. The Arsenal fan lives for that moment when you walk from the practice range to the first tee and out into an atmosphere like no other in golf.
“The pride of what it means to put the shirt on, walk over the bridge, through the tunnel and soak up the electricity that you get from the crowd is something which is the biggest adrenaline rush you could ever possibly have. It only happens every two years. It’s a long time to wait. It keeps you going. You want to play more and more of them because they are very fulfilling and you don’t get that experience in any other form of golf. Week-in, week-out, when we perform in majors, it’s just not the same.”
What is most impressive about Poulter is his use of the emotion. Rose spoke yesterday of his friend’s unique ability to switch in and out of the zone. When Michael Jordan, on the US backroom team, tried to psyche him out at Medinah, it played into the European’s hands.
Poulter does not agree with the psychologists who advise athletes to play the game rather than the occasion. “You don’t need to control it. You’ve waited for it for a long time so you just need to grab hold of it and let it go. I love what it stands for. I don’t think you need to calm that down.”
Poulter admits that he has struggled to reproduce his Ryder Cup form in other events. He says that every putt against the Americans feels like the one needed to win a tournament on a Sunday. It perhaps explains his record of 12 points from a possible 15, including victories in all four of his singles ties.
Sure, he intimidates opponents, but he would not be able to punch the air and whip up the crowd if he were not also producing the goods. “The intimidation factor comes from delivering, holing putts,” he says. “I’m one of those players who obviously stands tall. I’m very proud to put the shirt on. When I hole putts, and I’m seen holing those putts, showing the emotion, I guess that can be the intimidation factor that they may feel. I’ve been able to do that an awful lot since playing in the Ryder Cup. If that can continue, that’s how I’ll try and intimidate.”
Tom Watson, the US captain, has identified him as a target, the scalp that could be worth more than a point to his team. For Poulter, that is a compliment, a tribute to how far he has come since the days when he worked in the club shop. He has always made the most of relatively limited resources, and he isn’t about to stop now.
In practice the other day, he was struggling through a skins game with Rose and Stephen Gallacher, out of money, but not hope, as he made his way up the 17th.
“Duck egg,” was the cry from the group’s unforgiving caddies, a reference to the sum of zero that he was about to collect.
“Quack, quack,” they added as the abuse continued.
With that, Poulter stepped into a greenside bunker and splashed his ball straight into the hole. “When his back is against the wall, he normally produces,” says Rose, who will be hoping for more of the same this weekend.