Ian Poulter's win at Match Play isn't exactly a stepping stone to greatness, but it's a start

Tuesday February 23rd, 2010
The Match Play Championship was Ian Poulter's ninth career victory, but his first in the U.S.
Fred Vuich/SI

MARANA, Ariz. — Tiger Woods finally made a statement last week. So did Ian Poulter. Only his came on the golf course.

Poulter has long been considered a player with top-five-in-the-world potential but has never lived up to it. He has had a few close calls in big events, notably runnerup finishes to Padraig Harrington in the 2008 British Open and Henrik Stenson last year at the Players. Poulter showed that he's got toughness to back up his style (his wardrobes at the World Match Play have included purple plaid slacks and Sunday's all-pink outfit), including a pressure-packed star turn at the last Ryder Cup when he was a controversial captain's pick by Nick Faldo.

In the absence of Tiger, the golf media tends to be quick to anoint future stars. The latest would be Dustin Johnson, who defended his title at Pebble Beach earlier this month and now has three victories. Johnson is a power player loaded with potential, but it's premature to pencil him in as a Hall of Famer.

Regarding Poulter's rising stock, we're all tempted to quote the late Steve Allen's most famous song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." That's true after many players earn a win, usually followed by the cliche that the floodgates may now open for this player. Well, winning the Accenture World Match Play Championship hasn't exactly been a stepping stone to greatness.

Jeff Maggert won a thriller on an extra-hole chip-in in 1999. His next — and last — victory came seven years later. Steve Stricker won in 2001, then didn't win again until 2006.

Kevin Sutherland's victory in 2002 is the only one of his career. Darren Clarke's victory over Tiger Woods in 2000 is his only victory in the U.S. Henrik Stenson won in '07, then pretty much disappeared until winning last year's Players.

Geoff Ogilvy followed up his '06 Match Play Championship with the U.S. Open title, which admittedly was handed to him by Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. Ogilvy won another Match Play last year, plus another World Golf Championships event at Doral and a pair of winners-only events to open the season in Hawaii — all limited-field events, curiously. He's done well, yes, but not reached the potential many believe he has.

Poulter is an eight-time winner in Europe who had never won on the PGA Tour until Sunday. Despite the impression you get from his humorous commercials, his light-hearted and frequent Twitter posts and his gaudy attire, he's seriously into himself and his golf. He admitted early in the week that he had already calculated where a victory at the Match Play would boost him in the World Rankings — to fifth. He was 11th when he arrived in Tucson.

Based on this tournament's history, and based upon the relevance of match play, no one should necessarily believe this will springboard Poulter to a new level. Another strong finish in a major, a clutch showing on the back nine in a major or, better yet, a win in a major, that would do it. But not a win in a tournament in which Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson didn't play and in which Poulter beat only six players, albeit one by one — no small feat.

That said, Poulter played perhaps the best golf of his career this week. His short game has never been better, and he putted brilliantly. With 27 birdies in his first five matches, Poulter may well have been winning this event even if it was stroke play. He was relentless in the final, too, making six birdies against Casey in the first 18 and five more in 16 holes in the afternoon en route to a 4-and-2 win.

The fact is, the timing has never been better for Poulter to finally emerge as a potential candidate for No. 2 in the world. He's 34, his game is better than ever, physically and mentally. He has come a long way from his teenaged years when he worked in a golf shop and watched golf on TV when, he admits, he probably should've been sweeping the floors.

If this is the start of something big for Poulter, the giant step came at Valahalla when he was the star of the European Ryder Cup team in the 2008 defeat.

Last summer he told The Times of London, "The Ryder Cup was career-defining and very emotional, having to prove I was worthy of a captain's pick. I was being lined up to be shot down, and it was a horribly nervy time. Nothing compares to that kind of pressure. Now I know, absolutely, that I can play well under immense pressure. I am so much stronger as a result. I thought I was mentally strong three years ago, but I am stronger now than ever, and my golf is more consistent as well."

There was no doubting him at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club. He beat Justin Leonard, Adam Scott, Jeev Singh, Thongchai Jaidee and Sergio Garcia before building his lead to 4-up over Casey through 14 holes in the final. Casey was 2 down after 28 holes, but Poulter sealed his victory with a birdie at the 33rd and a par at the 34th.

On Saturday he talked about what a win would mean, that it would be an important check mark on his list of things to do — winning in America. He's already got his own clothing line and an expensive car collection. His recent acquisitions, he said, were a Ferrari California convertible and a Mercedes S63 AMG. He also has a Bentley, a Mercedes 330, an Aston Martin and a Ford GT, to name a few. He was asked what new wheels he'd purchase and he answered, "I don't want anything, actually."

A little respect would be enough. Or maybe a lot of respect. With this victory, Poulter has earned it.

Other highlights of The Week That Was at the World Match Play Championship:

Off-color Remark of the Week: We are not in a time warp, it only seems like it with the return of colored (I prefer "flavored") golf balls. South African Tim Clark began using the new Srixon Z-Star Tour Yellow ball. Its shade is somewhere between bright yellow and lime green. We used to call that optic yellow back in the '70s when only hackers used orange or yellow balls, which were mostly not the top-of-the-line models played by pros. The yellow balls are easier to see, no question about it, but Srixon is going to need some time for the buying public to get over that age-old stigma. It's still there because here's what Match Play Championship winner Ian Poulter Twittered: "I'm watching Tim Clark with that yellow ball. I used one of those when I was 7. It just doesn't look right, does it?"

Old Yeller Award: Clark, by the way, praised the yellow ball for being easier to see but joked, "It's not like I hit it long enough to not see a white ball."

Fastest Man Alive Cup: Take two helpings of irony and hand it to Ben Crane, whose reputation as slow player is known to all, including Crane. He brought it up himself when his opening opponent, Henrik Stenson, conceded their match on the first hole because he'd been suffering from the flu. "We got to the first hole and he said, 'Good-good, I'm going to conceded the match,'" Crane said. "Was that the quickest victory in match-play history? It would be hard to be faster." Laughing, he added, "Does it make any better sense that I should have the fastest victory?"

Savviest Veteran Ploy: Give that to Stenson. By halving the first hole by concession, then conceding the match, Stenson got credit for an official start, a tie for 33rd, official prize money and the accompanying number of World Ranking points. If he had simply withdrawn, the money would have been unofficial and he wouldn't have gotten credit for a Tour appearance. He didn't keep anyone else out of the tournament, either, since no alternates were on site.

Fastest Man Alive Cup Runnerup: One hole on Sunday morning was all it took to decide the semifinal match between Camilo Villegas and Paul Casey. Of course, they had played 23 holes the day before and had to stop because of darkness. When they resumed early on Sunday, Villegas pulled his opening tee shot left into the desert and disgustedly let go of his club on his follow-through, causing it to flip into some desert foliage. He knew it was trouble and, in fact, lost the hole and the match to Casey's par.

Best Desert Facsimile of 2002 British Open at Muirfield: This is Tucson, Ariz., where the winter weather is usually Chamber of Commerce stuff and the reason half of western Canada annually migrates here. Not on Saturday afternoon, when a storm front blew through with high winds, cold temperatures and numbing rain. Play was stopped for almost half an hour after Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter told officials that conditions had become "unplayable" at the fourth hole. "Probably the most miserable I've ever been on a golf course," said Casey.

Best Foreshadowing: Wisconsin resident Steve Stricker assumed the role as the tournament's No. 1 seed in the absence of Tiger Woods. His first-round opponent was the 64th-seeded Ross McGowan, a little-known Englishman who was in the field because of the absences of Woods and Phil Mickelson. "I'm sure he likes having me rather than Tiger," the self-effacing Stricker joked.

Finest Titanic Moment: Stricker became only the second top-seeded player to lose to No. 64 when McGowan scrambled for par on the 19th hole and Stricker couldn't get up and down for par from a buried lie in a greenside bunker. The only other No. 1 seed to fall was when Woods was upset by future trivia answer Peter O'Malley in the 2002 opening round.

Biggest Probable Letdown: Three days after he won at Pebble Beach, next-big-thing Dustin Johnson got off to the worst start of anyone in the field, conceding the first four holes to Villegas and eventually losing, 4 and 3.

Towelhead of the Week: The trophy goes to Clark, who saw a posse of TV cameras and media members waiting outside the clubhouse on Friday morning to get players' reactions to the statement made by Woods. Clark drew a few laughs when he draped a towel over his head as he walked past, indicating that he did not wish to comment.

Best Friday the 13th Sequel: Poulter wanted to go to sleep early on Friday since he expected Saturday to be a long day (and it was), so when a loud party continued into the night at the Ritz-Carlton, the players' posh hotel, Poulter called the front desk and asked to be moved to a different room. His request was accommodated. "As I was on my way there, I asked the porter what the room number was and the last two digits were 13," Poulter said. "I was questioning whether to go back in and put up with the noise. I'd been playing pretty good all week. I really didn't want to change my room. But I guess that's a lot of nonsense."

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