One of the last Tour players to emerge from the ranks of pro-shop assistant, Ryder Cup hero and 17-time Tour winner Ian Poulter has exceeded the expectations of many, except his own. Here, he reflects on a career … not quite done yet.
Let’s start with an odd one. Apart from maybe Paul Lawrie, it’s a safe bet that no one else in a regular European Tour field could change a grip on a golf club.
It’s been a while since I was an assistant pro. I loved those days though. I’ve been on Tour for 22 years now. But you are right. I was changing grips from the age of 16. That’s 28 years ago. And yes, I can still do it.
I enjoy messing with my clubs. I check the lofts and the lies too. I do it just because, as good as the equipment manufacturers are, I like to know for myself all is well. It sounds bad to say I never trust anyone, but I like the reassurance.
Bottom line is I’m proud to be PGA-qualified. I reckon I could still change the whipping on an old wooden club too. I’m betting there is no one else here this week (at the Abu Dhabi Championship), apart from Paul, who could do that. It would be fun to let guys have a go though. It’s not easy. But I could do it.
Indeed, you must be one of the last guys to emerge from the pro’s shop and make it on Tour.
It’s not the normal road any more. And, to be fair, it’s not a path I would like to see my son, Luke, take. I’d like him to go to college and learn his trade there. Then, if he’s good enough, give the Tour a try. That’s the norm these days, which is big change from when I was young. Today, it is more of a business from the age of 16 onwards. If you don’t treat it like that you are going to be way behind.
I’m sure. There was a 15-year old playing here this week – Josh Hill.
Exactly. He’s a big lad and a great talent. If you can shoot 62 in the last round to win a MENA Tour event you can play. That was impressive.
Does your mind wander back to those days much? To where you came from?
It’s bonkers. But I had a belief. I’ve never thought I was any different or inferior to anyone else. That is a huge part of my journey. It can obviously be a bad thing if you get a little too big for your boots early on. But the opposite is also true.
RIGHT: Poulter believes he is hitting the ball better now than at any time in his career. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Not being confident enough is also a bad thing. If you’re like that you are never going to be confident enough in tough situations. And if you are like that you are never going to go the whole way in golf. There is a comfort level that you have to feel very quickly.
Have you ever felt out of your depth?
That’s unusual, especially in golf, which has its share of elitism and snobbishness.
Well, let me ask you something. You’re a journalist. You’ve done this a long time. Have you ever felt out of your depth talking and writing about golf?
There you go. I’m the same. If you ask me to do a half-hour speech to 20,000 people in an auditorium, I am going to shit myself. That’s not my trade. But I am comfortable within golf. I’ve done my time. I feel good about myself. And I can cope with anything bad that comes along. I’m never embarrassed about what I do. A lot of people have a fear of failure – say hitting a bad shot at the wrong time. But not me.
Run me through your progression. How quickly were you good at golf?
It depends on what you mean by “good.” Winning on Tour at age 23 fresh out of the shop? What do we class as good? I won the Italian Open in 1999. Or was it my first Ryder Cup in 2004? What level is good?
I’m assuming you were a better player in 2004 than you were in 1999?
Of course. I had to be. I still think I’m not good enough though. I still think I could learn a lot more. I like to think I haven’t reached my full potential.
What kind of player are you? Are you technical? Or artistic? Do you get involved in positions?
I understand my swing. I understand what I need to do to get the best results. I understand what I’m working on. I like to look at my swing on video. That’s the only way to get feedback. I have all the gadgets known to man. I like to know my numbers. I like to equip myself with all the relevant information. But there is a line you don’t want to cross. Too much info can be as bad as too little.
You don’t look technical. Your swing flows.
I would never try to re-build or go through a major change. I am who I am. I am comfortable being the player I am. I’m 44. Could I have done something to get to World No.1? I don’t know. Because I didn’t try.
I’m surprised to hear you say that. Haven’t you done everything to get better?
Have I? I’m not sure. Look at Nick Faldo when he was World No.1. He went to the gym and added 20 pounds of weight. Or muscle. He was trying to get better and hit longer drives. But all that didn’t help him. Then there are those who have gone through various swing changes and haven’t emerged on the other side.
So I don’t know what I could have done. Or if there was something I could have done to get me to No.1. But am I happy with what I have achieved? Yes, I’m happy. But could I have worked harder? No question. Yes, I could.
Was there ever a moment of confirmation when you thought, “yes, I am good enough to do this.”
I shot 66-66 in my first pro event back in 1995. I beat the field by two shots. I was 19-years old. But I never had the kind of moment you’re talking about.
But that isn’t the norm. And you look a bit perplexed by the question.
Should there be a defining moment?
Most people have one.
If you know the journey you are on. And you feel it is one you can complete. Why should there be a barrier that has to be lifted? Does there need to be an “I’m in” moment?
What is interesting is that this has clearly never crossed your mind.
But there have been things all the way through. Winning my first event as an assistant. Winning on the Challenge Tour. Winning on the European Tour. Making the Ryder Cup. I guess the only way to answer this is, if I win a major in the next few years, I will have that moment. Ask me again when I win the Open (laughs).
Looking at your record in the majors is also interesting. I hate to say you have
“under-achieved,” but it isn’t as good as I would have expected from someone at your level. Especially in the US Open. No Top-10s there. Any reason why?
Eh..…how do I put this (laughs)?
I don’t like them. I just don’t like the US Open. I don’t enjoy them. I had a little opportunity at Shinnecock a couple of years ago when Brooks won. I was leading by two when I made a
triple-bogey on the 8th hole. But I have a bit of hang-up with the tournament.
I’ve played in a few and found them to be utterly embarrassing. I’ve stood there and shook my head at what we, as professionals, have been given to play on. Everything is just wrong, especially the course set-up. Look at Chambers Bay – broccoli greens.
"I wish the European Tour had an event on the sandbelt ... I’d like to see the Australian Open on our Tour." – Ian Poulter
Look, there is always going to be a winner. There is always going to be someone with the trophy at the end of the week. They always think the week has been amazing. I get that. But when you play in such a prestigious event – America’s national Open – one that generates so much money, it is hard to stomach that level of disappointment. If someone asks me which one I would like to win, the US Open is fourth on my list. For so many reasons.
It makes sense then that the one you mention was played on a links-style course that is hardly your typical US Open venue.
That is the best course for a US Open. Comfortably. But they –the USGA – have ruined it twice. Which is a tragedy. It’s an amazing course, one of the best you’ll see anywhere.
What is it you don’t like specifically?
My ball-flight is generally a bit lower than most guys on Tour. I don’t spin the ball as much either. I can play links golf because I can keep the ball down and run it onto the greens. I can do my thing. At Augusta, I can still work it round. There are ways for me to play the holes there. But the US Open asks you to crunch it off the tee and have a super-high ball-flight. You need that to stop the ball quickly on the really hard greens. So that doesn’t lend itself to my way of playing golf.
I’ve had 25 top-20s (18 actually) in the majors and I’ve played 60-odd (63). That’s not horrific. It’s not great. But it’s not horrific. When I think about it, am I surprised that it’s not a bit better? A little, if I’m honest. I’ve had a couple of woulda-coulda-shouldas and there are things I wish I’d done differently. But, although you try to be aggressive and take opportunities, sometimes it doesn’t work out. I’ve paid an expensive price for mistakes at times. It doesn’t take much.
What have been the most important weeks of your professional life?
Yes. My most enjoyable times in golf have all come at the Ryder Cup. I wanted to be a football player before that though (laughs).
How good were you?
I was pretty good. I had a trial with Tottenham Hotspur.
That is funny, for such a big Arsenal fan.
I keep it quiet (laughs). I enjoyed the team atmosphere and doing things for other people, not just myself. That might surprise people. I know some think I’m quite selfish. Even at the Ryder Cups we have lost I’ve played well. I played all five matches and won four. So, no matter what, they are the best weeks for me.
What is you role in the team room?
I’m as vocal as I think is necessary. Sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I say a lot. There’s no plan. It just happens. At Medinah in 2012 I was very vocal, on and off the course, all of which helped the bigger picture. I’ve stood up and said my piece.
If I feel I want to air something to someone – not necessarily a more experienced player – I will do so. It’s getting the right vibe across. It’s saying the right things to the right people. Anything to help put them in the right frame of mind. It’s the little things that add up at the end of the week. You only have to get it a tiny bit wrong for it to go really wrong. It’s a fine line. You never want to make the rookies feel uncomfortable. They have to feel part of it all.
How many times a day, a week do people mention what you did – five birdies in the last five holes to win the match – at Medinah?
Do you enjoy that? Or are you a bit fed-up with it?
It’s part of my life. It always will be, I’m proud of it. The outfit I wore on that Saturday is on a mannequin that sits next to my office desk. I can’t hide from it. I think any who did what I did that day would be proud of what went on. I was part of something really special. It was bonkers. I don’t know if I will ever surpass that day. Even if I won a major, I’m not sure it would bring me more joy than I experienced that day. I don’t feel I have to win the major. Would it be amazing? Yes. But is it going to change my life? No.
I get goosebumps when I think of Medinah. I’m getting goosebumps now. It was bonkers to live it, although I didn’t feel anything until I made the putt on the 18th to win the match. It was so emotional, realising that, an hour beforehand, the overall match was over. Over, over, over. Done. So it was then that the sense of pride kicked in.
It was amazing really. We were four points behind going into the singles – further behind than we had been the night before. Yet we felt like we could win. That makes no sense. But there was such a buzz in the team room.
What was it like in there?
It was nuts. We were singing songs and all sorts. It was as if we had just won. But that’s how mad it was. We were being beaten really badly. We were being humiliated really. But our mind-set changed. We knew we had a genuine chance. From down and out, written off. Which we knew. It looked it was going to be 12-4 going into the singles. It was over at that point. But we made it to 10-6. Big difference.
One of the biggest factors was how we all felt about Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal). His life is golf. He doesn’t have kids. And he’s the most honourable man you could ever meet. How could we live with ourselves if we packed him off home with no Ryder Cup? That would have been so bad for a man who has meant so much to the game of golf.
One of the big secrets to match play is getting inside the opponent’s head. That’s what you did on that Saturday night. Suddenly, they thought “wow, we could lose this.”
Exactly. That was just as important as us thinking we could win. We sowed the seed that we could win and they could lose. It’s humiliating to lose a big lead. On home soil.
I still have the text message I got from Ollie back then. It will be there forever. And no, I’m not going to tell you what he said (laughs). But anyone who walks into my office will see it. It is on a plaque in my office. It is unbelievable.
How did you play the next day? It must have been hard to get back ‘up’ to go again?
I chipped-in on the first for birdie (laughs).
But yes, I was flat. I was done really. It took me a few holes to get going. I had nothing left in the tank. You can’t give that energy one day and come right back the same. That morning I was taking in as much sugar as I could. Anything to give me a boost.
It was only when Webb (Simpson) shanked on the 8th that I really got into it. That was my sugar-rush. I knew he was feeling it. So it was time to turn the screw.
What have been the other great moments in the Ryder Cup?
Paris last time. Because of the atmosphere. There were so many people there. The 1st tee buzz was amazing. I went to the top of that massive grandstand the day before. What a sight. I have no idea how they will ever top that. I know they won’t win America.
Plus, on paper, we weren’t supposed to win. We were told that this was the best American team that has ever been assembled.
I never actually believed that. Look at the 1981 team.
Yeah. But that was what they were all saying. Anyway, what was really special for me was the embrace I had with Luke on the 18th green at the end. I’ll take that to my grave. It was a very special moment, you could never pay for. I hope that is a turning point for him. I know he was proud of his old man. It was so nice to have a moment with my son, especially when he had been on the plane to Oakland Hills in 2004 as a 16-week old baby.
So there are things that have happened in the Ryder Cup that mean more to me than anything else in my career.
You’re clearly an emotional wee soul. What makes you cry?
Good things. Family stuff. Both sad and happy. I cried on that 18th green with Luke. And I cried when my cousin passed away when I was only 13 years old. I don’t find it easy to talk about things like that though. We all have things like that in our lives. Because of what happened when I was 13 I haven’t shared anything like that with anyone. It’s too painful. I don’t like going there … I get upset.
Do you cry at sad movies? Were you upset when Ali MacGraw coughed for the first time in Love Story did you cry?
(laughs) I’ve never seen that one. I don’t like sad things. Some people do. I don’t. And yes, I know some of the great stories and great songs are written through emotional pain. But I prefer not to go there. I got my dose of it early. My mum and dad divorced early and it had a great impact on me. I didn’t enjoy it. And dealing with Gary’s death was awful. So I was like, ‘I’m not telling anyone anything anymore.’
So what sort of mood are you in when you play your best golf?
When my heart rate is up. When adrenaline is running. I love to hit a great shot and get a buzz going. The Ryder Cup does that for me before I even start. Standing on the first tee in a major just isn’t the same. That’s always been an issue. I need to find a way to create the buzz, which is why my feeling for the Ryder Cup doesn’t help me in regular tournaments. I can’t get the buzz.
I have no idea how anyone can play in a tournament in the week after the Ryder Cup. I can’t do it. It amazed me that guys go to the Dunhill Links. I can’t get out of bed. I’m spent.
What has been the best of your tournament wins?
The WGCs. Because of the quality of the fields. But I’ve played better many times in other events and not won. In those weeks I just haven’t holed the putts. When I’ve gone really low it isn’t necessarily the best I’ve played. Just the best I’ve scored. Take this week (in Abu Dhabi). I’ve missed the cut, but I’ve played really nicely. But I’ve holed nothing. So it is just one of the missed cuts I have every year.
You have always travelled well though. You have won on five different tours – PGA, European, Asian, Australasian and Japan. Not many people can say that.
I’m proud of that. I do travel well. But I have no idea why that is, other than to say I love to play great courses. The Sandbelt in Melbourne is a great example of that. I’ve won there. I like difficult courses too. I like to be challenged.
What do you make of the way modern golf at Tour level has gone?
It’s ‘crunch.’ Look at the top-20 players in the world today. They are nearly all crunchers.
Do you worry the way Brooks Koepka plays – and he is great – will be the only way to play?
Well, that’s the way I’m going to teach Luke how to play, which says it all. It’s all about power. But here is what is interesting. Are the crunchers going to have a really long career in golf? Are they going to be competitive in their 22nd seasons on Tour, which is where I am now. Are their bodies going to allow them to play like that for a long time?
The harder you hit the ball, the more stress you are going to put on your body. Tiger is proof of that. So I do wonder how they are going to last. Are they going to be able to play into their 40s? Look at the Champions Tour. The guys who do really well there are not crunchers. I can’t think of one. Langer dominates. Monty does well … Stricker.
On that theme, there aren’t too many guys in their 40s playing here this week. I bet it is less than ten. Do you worry that you are heading into what I call professional golf’s ‘black hole,’ between, say, 45 and 50? Too old to be competitive on the regular Tour; too young for the seniors.
I’m well aware of that. I’ve thought about it. But I don’t want to acknowledge it. Having said that, I’m hitting the ball as well as I have ever hit it. At age 44. I’m bucking the trend at this point. When I putt well, I am more than capable of contending on the regular Tours.
That might be because I have never been overly aggressive in the gym. It might be because I have stayed flexible. I haven’t had many injuries. All of that makes me wonder if a cruncher is still going to be competitive at the age I am now. I’m not sure. But I do wonder about guys like Cameron Champ and Justin Thomas. Are their bodies going to stand up to the constant pounding they get because they go at the ball 110 percent? I have no idea.
Is senior golf in your future?
I have no idea about that either.
I think you’re being a little coy.
I really have no idea. I might play for the money. I might play for the buzz. I know I will miss that. But I might get pulled into something completely different. I have other business interests.
There is surely a Ryder Cup captaincy in your future though. Is that something you are keen to do?
(laughs) It’s that simple is it?
What have you learned about the job?
Well, it would just be an honour to do it. I’m not exactly sure how I would go about it, but I’d like to have enough notice that I’d be able to think about it properly. I’d want to have a plan in place. I’d be using stuff from every captain I’ve played under too. I’d take all those good things and blend them into one.
RIGHT: Poulter, a former Australian Masters champion, is a big fan of the Melbourne Sandbelt. PHOTO: Getty Images.
After that, you’re as good as your team. If you can do a good job and give them all things they need to play well all you can then do is hope. It’s out of the captain’s hands.
I’m thinking the next available captaincy is 2024. You’ll be 48 then, just about the age most captains are. And I can see you are smiling already. But I must say I am a bit worried about what could go on at those matches. A Bethpage crowd could be brutal.
It can be difficult in America. But if that is my window of opportunity, it would be nice to see some work put in to preempt what we’ve seen in the past from American crowds. We want bigger crowds. We want people to have an awesome time. Does it get a bit over the top at times? Yes. Does it need to be controlled? Yes.
It’s all about education really. The governing bodies need to do something to make sure everyone enjoys golf events. We don’t want to see some of the stuff that has already happened. Look at the recent Presidents Cup. That’s no good for golf. And it needs to be addressed. The fans need to be educated in how to have a good time. Let’s do it the right way though. So by 2024 the crowd can be loud and raucous – but nothing more.
I’m betting on you getting the job in 2024. Although I’m sure you are not going to comment one way or the other.
(big smile) All I will say is that the sooner any captain knows he has the job, the better he is going to be. At the moment, European captains get 23 months notice. In my opinion, that’s not enough. The captain should know way in advance. That way plans can be put in place. There is so much to do. And it is difficult to do it all in 23 months.
I am looking forward to the team uniforms when you are captain …
(laughs) It’s too far out to know. It will depend on whatever clothing deal is in place. The key is to make sure everyone is comfortable.
What are you most proud of in life?
Are they like you or your wife, who does a great job of staying in the background while you get on with your golf … she plays the perfect role.
She is the best wife and the most amazing mum ever. She doesn’t want the razzmatazz. She’s not interested in being in photographs.
Where did you meet?
It was 24 years ago. In a nightclub. We were standing next to each other. My boss was chatting to her friend. So we started talking. And that was that.
When did you ‘know’?
Pretty quickly. She was a nurse. She is a carer. And a great person. She is exactly the sort of person you think most nurses are. They don’t get paid half as much as they deserve. She was the one for me. And she has been by my side for all the good and the bad things that have happened.
How lucky did you feel in 2016 when the PGA Tour screwed up the arithmetic and you kept your card rather than lost it?
It was fortunate. But my situation wouldn’t have been a complete disaster. I was still going to play in a few events. But the change meant I was able to get into better events.
I covered the Players that year when you came second. That was a big week for you.
Bonkers. A massive turning point. There was a lot going on behind the scenes that week, too. A lot to clean up. But we got through all of it in one week. On and off the course. One minute I was really struggling and the next I was finishing second in what is arguably the strongest field of the year. I didn’t do anything different on the course. But I did sort out a lot of shit behind the scenes.
Any regrets along the way?
I’ve made a few wrong turns. But not many regrets. I’d like a few shots back. My shanked second to the last in that Players would be one of them. But I made a great five.
I do regret some of the social media stuff. I’ve been in arguments I shouldn’t have been in. I’ve learned to bite my tongue. I just block the idiots. Verbal scuffles with those people are a waste of my time. It’s just not worth it.
The odd business decision has gone wrong. I should have been a bit more hands-on with my clothing line. But it’s hard to dedicate enough time to everything.
Any chance of Australian golf fans seeing you there any time soon?
There is nothing I would love more. I wish the European Tour had an event on the Sandbelt. But it’s not on the current schedule. I’d like to see the Australian Open on our Tour, too. The fans down there are awesome. And it would be great to get down there, especially with the country going through so much with the fires at the moment. I would love to be able to do all of that.
Is living in America just a matter of convenience?
Exactly. I play most of my golf there. And it is where I get to spend most time with the kids. Getting home on a Sunday night is priceless. I’ve done the ocean-hopping before. And it doesn’t work. It is brutal. Plus, Amy goes to college soon. So that is the first one out of the house. Two of the four are driving cars. It’s madness.
Where did it all go right Ian?
(laughs). It’s been good. Pretty damn good.