John Huggan: Ian Poulter doesn’t choke when all the others are gasping for air

EVEN from the relatively safe distance of seven days, it remains difficult to put the 39th Ryder Cup matches at Medinah into any kind of sensible or definitive perspective.

But it’s a pretty safe bet that, in due course, Europe’s amazing comeback victory over the US will take its place alongside the likes of wonder horse Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown, the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman a year later, the USA versus Russia ice hockey match at the 1980 Olympics and New York Yankee Reggie Jackson hitting successive home runs off three successive pitches and three different pitchers in game six of the 1977 World Series – just some of the most iconic American sporting events of the last half-century.

So, in recognition of its soon-to-be-anointed “yes, I was there” status, here are just a few lasting impressions of an unforgettable Ryder Cup in the Windy City.

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This was Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup, a man ostensibly playing as part of a team but whose individual contribution to its collective success went far beyond the norm. The 36-year-old Englishman – a very good but hardly great performer when not in Europe’s colours – has an uncanny knack when it comes to match play competition. However he does it (and it isn’t clear he knows himself), Poulter has perfected the art of not choking at times when everyone else is gasping for air.

At Medinah, Poulter was Europe’s catalyst, around which everything good revolved. Most notably, the five birdies in succession he made late on the second day were the rocket fuel the visitors needed to propel themselves past powerful opponents. Non-playing captain Jose Maria Olazabal called him “an inspiration”. Others labelled the former Leighton Buzzard assistant pro “a marvel” or “amazing”. All were correct but all were inadequate descriptions for the inspirational level of Poulter’s play.


In an effort to encourage and enable the long-hitters in his side, US captain Davis Love had Medinah set up to look a lot like Augusta National. Where once there had been long grass – golf’s most boring hazard – the former USPGA champion insisted on either fairway or a minimalistic version of semi-rough. So short grass – golf’s most interesting hazard – was the order of the three days.

The result was sensational. Gone was the tedium and point missing of the hack/gouge/chip out, replaced by golf’s most exciting aspect – the risky recovery shot. Gone was the warped notion that harvesting rough is the only way to make a course “difficult” and so enough of a challenge for the best. As a result, Medinah – not the most inspiring layout – was transformed into a test that was fun, interesting and challenging. Encouraged to take risks, the players duly did so, producing a hugely enjoyable form of golf seen only too rarely at the highest level.


It is the unfortunate role of even the most efficient and competent captain to be endlessly second-guessed should he end up on the wrong end of even the closest result. And so it is with Love, who left out his strongest pair – Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – on the second afternoon. “Sitting” the 42-year-old Mickelson was fair enough but Bradley was another matter. It would have been interesting to see how the former USPGA champion’s high-octane approach would have gelled with, say, Tiger Woods.

Love’s other big mistake was to involve himself in something of an arm-wrestle with his opposite number when it came to the 12 singles. Knowing Olazabal had to lead off with his strongest players in order to “chase” the overnight four-point deficit, Love would have been better advised to move his own “guns” down a couple of spots. As it was, his best players were bested by their European equivalents and those behind, suddenly faced with the growing prospect of losing a match they seemed certain to win, just weren’t up to the job.


As ever at a Ryder Cup on American soil, the vast majority of the spectators were cheering for the home side. Which is as it should be. Patriotism in its purest form is a delight and something to be celebrated. So there is nothing wrong with Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews getting out there to support the guys in red, white and blue.

But (and this is a big but), even if there are those in the American media who don’t want to hear the awful truth about a small minority of xenophobic morons, it is a sad fact that they exist. Some of the comments emanating from last week’s audience were unbelievably crass and, at times, downright disgusting. Seve Ballesteros was a target, as was Justin Rose’s late father, Ken. Sergio Garcia got a fair bit of stick, as did Poulter and Paul Lawrie. And that’s before we mention the standard yells of “get in the bunker/water” that seemed to follow almost every European shot. Shame on those involved.


Our lone representative in Olazabal’s 12-man squad did us proud. In so many ways, both on and off the course, the 43-year-old Aberdonian is a credit to both his family and his profession. And, my goodness, he played well in what was his second Ryder Cup appearance. Six under par for 15 holes in his singles match against the newly-crowned Fed-Ex Cup champion, Brandt Snedeker, Lawrie’s play was a perfect example of how to a) get ahead early, b) consolidate a lead and c) kill off a dangerous opponent.

That he did not spot the quality of Lawrie’s play earlier than he did is just one of the few mild criticisms one could have of Olazabal. Even in the 5&4 defeat he shared on day one against the ten-under play of Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, Lawrie made five birdies and was well under the card. So it was obvious that the Scot should have been playing the next morning ahead of, say, a patently out-of-form Lee Westwood.


Yes, it was funny. And at least one or two of them did manage to make some sense. But shoving a 12-strong group of adrenaline-fuelled European golfers out in front of the world’s media after they had been drinking copiously from magnums of champagne for more than an hour – on empty stomachs – is a risky business. Garcia couldn’t shut up. McDowell couldn’t stay awake. Lawrie couldn’t stop laughing at McDowell. Westwood did a lot of inane grinning. Donald and Rose appeared to be more than a little flushed. Hanson looked, well, like Hanson. And Olazabal, at times, wasn’t sure where to look. Even halfway through the proceedings, one could imagine the sometimes-prissy American press having a field day in print with these uncouth Euros. Thank goodness they were too busy slagging off their own men to pay too much attention.


They just can’t win, can they? Long castigated because of a perceived lack of bonding in their team play, the home squad proceeded to dominate the foursomes and four-balls only to collapse dramatically in its supposed strength, the singles. What excuse, one wonders, will they come up with next time?