Ryder Cup focus: Is Ian Poulter sure to return to Team Europe in Paris?

Ian Poulter: Can Europe's Ryder Cup rock, nicknamed The Postman, deliver again?
Ian Poulter: Can Europe's Ryder Cup rock, nicknamed The Postman, deliver again?

The Postman - because he always delivers. Setting aside the uncomfortable truth that postmen do not always deliver, the nickname seemed an appropriate one. Ian Poulter had been among Europe's most reliable sources of Ryder Cup points since taking his first, a winning one, against Chris Riley in 2004. In 2008, he was the shining light in a dark week for Nick Faldo's team; in 2010, he promised to win his singles match and did; in 2012, he wrote, produced and directed the Miracle of Medinah.

Yet it's now six years since that famous week, when Poulter carried Rory McIlroy to an unlikely point on Saturday, triggering a turnaround which he again played a key part in with victory over Webb Simpson at the start of a phenomenal Sunday for Europe. Since then, he's played in only one Ryder Cup, this time standing on McIlroy's shoulders for a hard-fought half and barely scraping to another against Simpson in an otherwise comfortable victory for his side. The contrast between his performance in Medinah and that which he produced at Gleneagles was stark, Poulter himself joking that it was a case of "second-class post" this time.

Two years later and Poulter's role was as Darren Clarke's fourth vice captain. A foot injury had ruled him out of playing, in turn taking away an awkward decision for the captain: how much stock could he place in Poulter's past heroics, versus some mediocre current form? Poulter's only performance of merit had come in the weakest event he'd played, and alarm bells had begun to ring.

Poulter would no doubt argue that he deserved selection, and chances are he'd have been given a wild card, probably at the expense of Thomas Pieters, the ice-cool Belgian who went on to star for Europe despite their defeat, just as Poulter had in 2008. That defeat had been their first Ryder Cup without Colin Montgomerie, and there's a similar argument that the absence of Poulter the player helped the United States to victory in 2016, just as there had been an argument that his days of making his name in this, the competition which matters most to him, had been and gone.

Except Poulter has built a career out of defying expectations, forcing his way into the game against the odds, winning on the Challenge Tour, coming through Qualifying School, quickly asserting himself at the highest level. Viewed through the prism of his own achievements, victory in the Shell Houston Open earlier this year - his first ever stroke play success on US soil, one which he needed to earn a place in the Masters and one which surely confirmed a return to the Ryder Cup side - can hardly be called a surprise.

Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup and, on the right, in Houston
Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup and, on the right, in Houston

Houston? It's not a problem

One week prior to the Shell Houston Open, Poulter reached the quarter-finals of the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, where his serene progress was halted in no uncertain terms by the biggest beating of his match play career. Poulter lost 8&6 to Kevin Kisner, describing his performance as "rubbish" and, typical of the man, refusing to make excuses.

Except he did have a significant excuse. After his last-16 victory against Louis Oosthuizen, Poulter was informed that he'd done enough to earn a place in the Masters via the Official World Golf Rankings, only to learn soon after that this was not the case; that he would in fact need to beat Kisner first.

"I guess I should never listen to other people," he said. "When you finish a round of golf and the press and everybody telling you you're in the Masters, and then you get a text message 10 minutes before you tee off to correct everybody, to say, 'oh, we've made a mistake, actually, no, that was wrong, you're not in. You need to go and win.'

"Not that that's an excuse or any form or factor, it's (just) a little disappointing. I asked three times, four times, are you sure, are you sure, are you sure? 'Yeah, you're definitely in.' No, I'm not definitely in. So next time I won't listen to other people. I'll do my bit and focus better."

From that two-handed blow, Poulter arrived in Houston tired and frustrated. He opened with a clumsy round of 73 to sit 123rd on the leaderboard and, with only victory now enough to earn a Masters place, the game was up. Or at least it would've been for most other golfers. For Poulter, the game is never up - it's a case of working out a route back into it, nine holes at a time: 32, 32, 32... he was back in the game; 33, 33, he was leading. That Masters place he thought he'd won was now his to lose.

And yet it could all be in vain, for standing across the fairway from him was one of the brightest lights of American golf, one who happens also to be one of the most electric putters on the planet. Beau Hossler, also playing for an Augusta invite, stood tall with birdies at 12, 13, 14 and 15, and his approach to 30 feet at the last appeared to have finally sealed the deal.

But there was a problem. Poulter's ball had come to rest just inside 20 feet and, crucially, on the same line. When Hossler's putt for victory hit the lip and stayed out, Poulter had a 20 foot putt which had been made that bit easier by what he'd just seen. What happened next was Poulter personified: focus, intensity, technique and willpower, all combining to force the ball down and then, at last, force a mistake from Hossler in the following play-off. For the first time in half a decade, he was a champion again.

"At times you have to dig deep. When you want something bad enough, then you have to go right down to the bottom and grab hold of what you can to come back up."

Ian Poulter's clutch putt to force playoff at Houston Open

Primed for Paris

Winning a tournament in April does not always guarantee a Ryder Cup place in September, but for this player, the job does look to have been done.

Poulter's record in the Ryder Cup bears repeating. He's played 18 matches now, winning 12 of them, halving two and losing just four; in singles he remains undefeated, even if Simpson ended his winning run, and he's lost just one foursomes match. There are now three defeats on his four-balls record, but just as in the other two formats he still boasts a winning return.

Ranking players historically always comes with pitfalls, but there is a strong case to be made for Poulter being Europe's best ever Ryder Cup player. He certainly boasts the best points return of anyone to have played in three or more at 72.2 per cent and each of the 11 players who've won more matches have had significantly more opportunities, as have the 12 who've secured more points.

Never has one man swung an entire Ryder Cup match as he did at Medinah, and it appears certain that Thomas Bjorn's hand has been forced - that's if Poulter, currently on the fringes of automatic qualification, doesn't get the job done himself.

Bjorn said in the aftermath of Houston that he told Poulter not to rely on being a pick, but his message was not one of warning but one of encouragement - the basis of it being that Poulter should use that success as a springboard, rather than relaxing, as if he ever would. Read another way, Bjorn wants Poulter to qualify so as to free up a captain's pick, because if he doesn't make it, he simply has to be selected.

The Dane said: "(Poulter's) win in Houston was a bit special, wasn't it? He has mental qualities that very few players have. He's found the last two years really tough and I'm just delighted for him. He keeps putting himself in positions and doing things that make him the story.

"Even if you don't like golf, you had to enjoy what he did as just pure sport. Now he's back where he wants to be, with exemptions and playing in the right tournaments. He loves these moments and treasures them because this is where he wants to be.

"But I've said to him 'go and enjoy it, go and make the team. Don't rely on being a (Captain's) pick - make it.' I want the best 12 players and no friendship or sentiment will come between that. They know that. It’s all about the team. It’s always has been for Europe."

No doubt Bjorn is also aware of Poulter's record at Le Golf National, home of this year's event and long-time host of the Open de France. Poulter has played the course 12 times in competition and never yet has he missed the cut. On nine occasions he's finished inside the top 30, three times in the top four, and the nature of a demanding golf course which requires permanent focus plays to the strengths of one of Europe's most tenacious golfers.

Poulter always looked likely to be given the benefit of the doubt for Paris, given his course record and Ryder Cup heroics. After his win in Houston, he no longer needs it.

Marked and dangerous

Ahead of the last Ryder Cup in which Poulter featured as a player, Jim Furyk hinted at issues within the US camp with how he goes about his business. "Ian has a way of exciting his team, it is his personality and it is definitely good for the European team," he said, before adding without subtlety that "some players had violated the spirit of the Ryder Cup."

Now that the USA have unearthed their own version of Poulter in Patrick Reed, dubbed 'Captain America' for his performances both there at Gleneagles and subsequently at Hazeltine, perhaps Furyk - now captain - will find his view has changed. Certainly, getting the most out of Masters champion Reed will affect how his own team functions, and doing that may rely on some broadening of boundaries.

Matt Kuchar, on the receiving end when Poulter famously said "I will deliver a point" at Celtic Manor and known to be as gentlemanly as Jim, declared in Scotland that "everybody wants a piece" of Poulter, although there are reasons to believe that perhaps the man delivering that line would happily forego his own chance for revenge and let someone like Reed have a pop at the champ.

Either way, Poulter will head to Paris a marked man. Just how he likes it.

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