SOUTHPORT, England — Ian Poulter walked up to the 18th green at the Open Championship and heard rousing applause for another solid round at Royal Birkdale. He stood tall, a pose not seen from him on a big stage since flags were waving at the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles.
And to think just three months ago, Poulter was at a low point in his career.
"The large confidence tank that was empty a few months ago is starting to fill up," Poulter said. "And I like it when it gets full. I play some of my best golf when I'm pretty confident. And I'm excited for this weekend. I can't wait."
In the nasty conditions of wind and rain, Poulter opened with 11 straight pars. His lone birdie on the par-3 12th was negated by a poor approach on the 16th that led to his only bogey. The numbers on the card — 16 pars, one birdie, one bogey — suggested a boring round.
That's what excited Poulter, because it was anything but.
The wind came out of an opposite direction and was such a severe change that on holes where he had been hitting a fairway metal and sand wedge, Poulter had to hit driver and a long iron off the tee.
Most pleasing of all was his position on the leaderboard on a course where he had his best chance in a major. Poulter was at 3-under 137 and will be in the penultimate group Saturday along with U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka.
He is in weekend contention at a major and said, "It feels absolutely marvelous. It really does."
"Walking up 18, just walking from greens to tees, was really pretty special today," Poulter said. "Huge galleries, and they were really pulling for me. So it was really nice to be in position, keep churning out decent scores and keeping myself on the board. It was great."
Poulter has been showing signs of improvement. He shared the 54-hole lead a week ago in the Scottish Open until closing with a 74. But he looks all the way back to the spring, when he was on the verge of losing his card.
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He missed the middle of last season with a foot injury, reducing him to a vice captain's role in the Ryder Cup, and was trying to earn enough money or FedEx Cup points on a medical extension to keep his PGA Tour card. Only when he thought he fell short did the tour realize a clerical error that saved him. Among other things, it got him into The Players Championship, where he tied for second.
The tank started to fill.
"TPC was huge," he said. "I can't explain how big a week that was for me mentally to be able to come over and play a stretch of tournaments like I'd just played leading in, and qualifying for this week."
He also can draw on his last time at Royal Birkdale, though the circumstances were slightly different. Poulter was never really in the mix until the final, blustery round, when he closed with a 69 and thought he had a chance to win with a clutch par on the 18th — until Padraig Harrington finished strong with a birdie and eagle to win by four.
"Every moment I'm on the golf course right now I'm thinking a lot about Sunday's round of golf in 2008," he said. "And the fans are great. I'm playing hard for them, as well, because they're giving me a lot of energy on the course."
He might need it.
Poulter hasn't even played in a major since the 2016 Masters. He wasn't sure he would make it back to Royal Birkdale. So the thought of chasing down Jordan Spieth, for starters, didn't feel as daunting.
"I'm in a bonus week. I qualified for the Open. I'm loving it. I really am," he said. "This is a massive bonus for me to be in this position. I haven't played a major for a little while. And I can't wait. I'm excited. I'm pumped up. I feel my game's coming back to form. So, yeah, I mean I'm ready to go out there toe to toe with anyone."
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