ST. LOUIS – Ian Poulter is on his way, the way a speeding locomotive churns through a tunnel towards the light. A lost golfer a little more than a year ago, his strut is back. His confidence is bubbling. This week marks his fifth consecutive week playing tournament golf, a hectic stretch, but there is a freshness about him. As for his 3-under 67 to open the 100th PGA Championship? It was pretty much exactly what he needed, especially with the event he loves the most – the Ryder Cup – sitting just 50 days away.
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Back home in his birthplace of Hertfordshire, England, they’d call the round Poulter turned in Thursday morning at Bellerive Country Club a tidy effort. There were a couple of small mistakes, but for the most part he played quite cleanly, missing only a single fairway and offsetting two bogeys with five birdies on a track that featured little wind and receptive greens. His iron play was crisp. He gave himself some nice looks across his final holes.
Poulter, 42, left some unfinished business on the table last week in Akron, Ohio, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He’d shot 62 to open the tournament and stayed near the top of the board all week, only to falter badly on Sunday, shooting 74 and sliding all the way into a tie for 10th. He flew home that night to Orlando, Florida, greeted by a big empty house with his wife and four children still on holiday in England. When his head hit the pillow, he couldn’t sleep.
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“I got to bed at 11:30 and my head was going … I’d just flown in from Akron, I was a bit frustrated that I didn’t finish it off properly, so the head was a little bit fuzzled,” Poulter said. “Then it was too quiet in the house. There was no noise. I never get the opportunity to be in the house when there is no noise. It was a bit weird, yeah."
Thursday at Bellerive, Poulter didn’t lack for noise. He played in front of a massive gallery, and alongside a fan favorite in Rickie Fowler, who delighted the crowd by shooting 65, the best round in the morning wave. Poulter teed off on No. 10 and birdied three of his first six holes, but had given two shots back by the time he reached his closing stretch on his final nine. He then transformed a run-of-the-mill round into something special with a pair of 12-foot birdie putts on Nos. 7 and 8, helping to keep him close to Fowler, who was sizzling on his own.
Already it’s been a magical season for Poulter. In April at the Houston Open, he won his first PGA Tour title since 2012, and with the triumph landed an 11th-hour invitation to the Masters. He is playing all four majors for the first time since 2015. He has risen from being outside the top 200 in the World Golf Ranking in early 2017 and fighting to keep a Tour card all the way to 31st, giving him job security and freedom in his scheduling. And though he does not rank among the top four in either European or World points for the 2018 European Ryder Cup team, he certainly is standing at the door, and knocking loudly.
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In the Ryder Cup, before there was Patrick Reed, there was Ian Poulter. He nearly turned things around single-handedly at Medinah, outside Chicago, in 2012, knocking down birdies and beating his chest, putting 11 teammates on his back and helping Europe overcome a deficit that had reached six points, 10-4, by late afternoon on Saturday before he birdied his last five holes to win a four-ball match. It was spectacular theater.
He missed Hazeltine two years ago after being injured, and though he served as a vice-captain to Darren Clarke, Europe’s team was missing a certain spark in its lineup. Poulter has never won a major championship, mind you, but he has built himself into a Ryder Cup superhero, amassing a record of 12-4-2.
“He is, and has been, the heartbeat of the team the past few years,” Rory McIlroy said after his even-par 70 on Thursday at Bellerive. “With him not playing last time, I felt like I needed to step up a little bit (as a leader) and try to fill a little bit of that void that was there. But it’s great to see him playing well. The Ryder Cup brings the best out of him, and I think that golf course (Le Golf National outside Paris) suits his game very well. It’s good that he’s playing well at the right time.”
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Thomas Bjorn’s Europe team will be constructed through four players in World points (currently McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Alex Noren and Paul Casey), four players from a European points list (Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood) and four captain’s selections. Bjorn, much like his American counterpart, Jim Furyk, will have some interesting choices among his picks. Just outside his automatic qualifiers, there reside two significant team veterans who have played a big part in several winning sides: Poulter and Sergio Garcia.
Poulter wants to make his strongest run to the finish line, so heading into Bellerive he kept a close watch on his energy. He went home to Orlando Sunday night (his first night there since May 20), greeted the family on Tuesday night, and didn’t fly to St. Louis and get his first look at the golf course until Wednesday. He said he’d never arrived so late to a major. On Thursday, some of that extra stored energy paid off.
“Putting myself on the (leader) board is great,” Poulter said. “It’s great for your adrenaline. It’s great for your mindset. It’s good for your energy levels, and it keeps edging me closer to making the Ryder Cup team. There’s definitely a lot of energy to come from that.”
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Poulter counts six finishes of T-12 or better since early spring. If anything tugs at him a little, it’s that he could be finishing tournaments stronger. His Ryder Cup chances would have been enhanced had he closed stronger at the RBC Heritage (closing 75, T-7), or the U.S. Open (a 75-76 weekend) or at Firestone on Sunday (74).
“Listen, it would be lovely to just … I could have got it done last weekend. That’s why I’m a little frustrated,” he said. “I mean, if I can push this week for sure, if I can have a strong week in New Jersey (Northern Trust, in two weeks), and edge in, it would be fantastic.
“I’m trying not to think about it, but I know it’s there.”
Just as we all know, with a Ryder Cup looming, he’s right there, too.
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