AS anyone who took in even a few minutes of the still-recent Ryder Cup will know only too well, watching Ian Poulter play golf is rarely dull.
But walking and talking with the four-times European team member as he makes his way round a course is even more fun. Living up to his “cheeky-chappie” public persona, the 36-year-old Englishman is an eclectic mix of cockney-like slang, self-deprecation, mocking banter and, in contrast to his “all mouth and trousers” public image, well-informed and owns frequently thoughtful views on the game that has famously made him famous.
Last Wednesday, as Poulter completed his first full circuit of the magnificent Kingston Heath course in Melbourne, all of the above were on display, as well as an impressive array of shot-making and short game artistry. He’s still far from the best player in the world from tee-to-green but, within 80 yards or so of the putting surface, few are better than the man from Hitchin who turned professional with a handicap of four. As his Ryder Cup team-mate Graeme McDowell – also in well-compensated attendance here – was moved to comment: “Poults’ game has come on a lot in the last two years. He’s a much more complete player these days.”
What was energising Poulter most, however, wasn’t the standard of his own play (he never keeps score in a pro-am). Instead, the two-times World Golf Championship winner couldn’t stop enthusing over the course where he was defending the Australian Masters title he won at nearby Victoria 12 months ago.
“This is proper golf,” he declared. “And such a refreshing break from the stuff we are asked to play on most weeks of the year. It’s not just 14 drives hit as hard as you can, a lay-up to 100 yards on every par-5 and four par-3s over 220 yards. I am so tired of all that.
“No, Kingston Heath isn’t just about smashing the ball off every tee. This is a course where you are asked to think on every hole and every shot. I love it that you have to plot your way round, using strategy rather than brute force.”
Poulter’s round was regularly interrupted by autograph seekers, most of whom seemed more than a little curious about just how he had managed to almost single-handedly turn round Europe’s fortunes at Medinah last September. The five birdies with which he closed late on the second day clearly have the potential to be career-defining, especially if (like Colin Montgomerie) major victories continue to prove elusive. Again atypically, the colourful Englishman was reluctant to make too much of his match-changing contribution, conscious perhaps of the fact that – great as he had played – the Ryder Cup remains a team contest.
Not that he has had to toot his own horn, of course. At Medinah, Rory McIlroy – Poulter’s partner in that already seminal match against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson – marvelled at the intensity of his sidekick.
“He gets that look in his eyes, especially after he makes a big putt,” said the world No.1. “At one point he even looked right through me. But it’s great to see the passion he has.”
Eight weeks on, that sense of wonder has dissipated only slightly. McDowell is but one of many quick to pay tribute to the positive effect that Poulter’s amazing burst of birdies had on Old World morale.
“On the Friday night, Ollie [non-playing captain, Jose Maria Olazabal] gave us all a bit of the ‘hair drier’ treatment,” reveals the Irishman. “Which was fair enough. We were two points down and hadn’t played well. So the atmosphere in the team room was almost totally negative.
“One day later, thanks to Ian, that was all changed. The place was jumping. We were all thinking, ‘we can win this.’ And, by then, we were four points down rather than two. Which just goes to show you how much belief he gave us with that incredible finish. He was the catalyst around which our eventual victory was built, no question.”
The “problem” for Poulter though, is that, in the wake of such a startling performance under the most extreme pressure, he is seemingly incapable of recreating the same sort of adrenaline rush during regular tournaments or even majors.
“For some reason, I don’t get the same buzz at a major like I do at the Ryder Cup,” he shrugs. “I can’t recreate what it means in a Ryder Cup into a stroke play event. When I won two weeks ago in China, I probably had five per cent adrenaline going through my body. At the Ryder Cup I have 100 per cent. So that gives an indication of just how different the two are. I just don’t know how I can recreate that level of intensity and that kind of focus in a major. It just can’t be done.”
Still, for all that he seems destined to be remembered, Monty-style, more for his play in team colours than the sartorial eccentricity that is his trademark, Poulter isn’t doing too badly for himself. Since he turned professional back in 1994, he has amassed nearly ¤18m on the European Tour and more than $12.5m on the PGA Tour. All of which has given him a (multi) millionaire lifestyle, one that includes the requisite big mansion on the posh Lake Nona estate on the edge of Orlando in Florida.
Regular followers of his on the social media site Twitter will know too that Poulter is not slow to show the world the material results of his success. Which is fair enough, even if he does occasionally display a lack of self-awareness at a time when so many of the planet’s citizens are worried about their economic futures.
Just recently, by way of example, Poulter surely alienated a large percentage of his more than 1.4 million followers when he tweeted that it was going to take electronics giant Samsung more than a few days to fix one of the 19 – yes, 19 – televisions dotted about the not-so-humble abode he shares with wife Katie and their four children. “Do not buy @Samsung rubbish” was his message to the tweeting world. So, every now and then, a wee bit of caution and/or introspection wouldn’t go amiss.
No matter, this observer at least finds it easy to forgive such an otherwise appealing character the odd lapse into self-aggrandisation. For all his use of 21st century technology to promote his “brand”, Poulter is touchingly traditional when it comes to golf. His message on the long putter controversy currently bedevilling the game is typical: “Ban them. End of story.”
Then again, it is never long before any conversation with Poulter returns unerringly to the Ryder Cup. Which is fine by him. On the back of his 62-degree wedge, just under the manufacturer’s logo, there is a short but meaningful message: “Europe V. U.S 2012”. Clearly, the hero of Medinah is in no hurry to forget either this year’s momentous victory or the incredible 12-3 record he has so far accumulated against the big, bad Yankees. Which is as it should be. The Seve Ballesteros of his generation – or the nearest thing we have to the late Spanish genius – deserves nothing less.