Poulter gives Monty reason to bite his lip
WE'VE gagged at some of his outlandish on-course costumes; glowered at his selection ahead of Darren Clarke for the Ryder Cup and guffawed out loud when he dared suggest he'd be second only to Tiger Woods at the top of the world!
Well nobody's laughing now.
Ian Poulter's 16-year odyssey from selling chocolate bars and tee pegs in a club pro shop to World Golf Championship victory in Tucson on Sunday stands in glorious relief to Tiger's horrific fall from grace.
How apt that along with his €1,019,635 winner's cheque as Accenture Match Play Champion, Poulter should also receive The Walter Hagen Trophy, dedicated to golf's most famous dandy.
"He was a snappy dresser," said Poulter, plainly delighted with the association.
Apart from the legendary American's 11 Major titles, there's one other significant difference between Hagen and the man from Hitchin: Poulter does his own ironing.
He's worth millions; has just added a Ferrari California and a Mercedes S63 AMG to his car collection and parks them outside the home he shares with wife, Katie, and their two young children on the exclusive Lake Nona resort in Orlando.
Yet the 34-year-old Englishman personally presses each outfit in his hotel room before wearing it in public. Indeed, his commitment to fashion inevitably led some fans to mistake him more for a clothes horse than a world-class golfer.
"For me it's a business and one that I'm very passionate about," he explains. "I take pride and care in how I present myself on the golf course. I iron my clothes for every match. I want to go out there looking good.
"It's interesting how a lot of people have judged me by the way I present myself as opposed to how well I can actually perform, which makes it very pleasing for me to be in this position now. I guess being No 5 in the world stands for more than just what I wear."
Poulter is justifiably proud of his highest world ranking so far in a career which had such humble origins in 1994, when, as a four handicap, he was employed as an assistant at his local club, The Jack O'Legs, named after a 14th century highwayman who used to rob the rich to give to the poor.
That was the year another 18-year-old named Eldrick Woods became the youngest-ever winner of the US Amateur title.
Poulter graduated from Q-School with his European Tour card at his fourth attempt in 1999 and, after winning the Italian Open in his first season, was named Rookie of the Year in 2000, as the world stood in awe of Tiger and three stunning Major Championship victories at Pebble Beach, St Andrews and Valhalla.
Though Poulter's climb up the world ladder was at a more modest pace, he managed to win in each of his first five years on the European Tour, in the process making his Ryder Cup debut at Oakland Hills in 2004.
His infamously prickly relationship with current Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie is believed to have its origin in the following year's Seve Trophy. On that occasion, Poulter chose to practise instead of supporting his Britain and Ireland team-mates on 18 and when team captain Monty challenged him on that point he allegedly received a two-word reply.
The Scot has fired a verbal bullet or two in Poulter's direction since, most notably for not playing at Gleneagles in the final qualifying event for the 2008 Ryder Cup and for skipping last autumn's Vivendi Trophy match in Paris.
"Given that he was a captain's pick for the last Ryder Cup, I feel that he could have made more effort to be here, that he could have given a little more back," Montgomerie said.
Faldo's wild card came with white-hot controversy, though Poulter has consistently denied suggestions he opted out of Gleneagles after being 'given the nod' by the European captain ahead of the tournament.
Yet Poulter would silence his critics, myself included, with a wonderfully defiant display at Valhalla, winning four out of five points for a losing European cause, the most accrued by any player on either side.
He believes that experience contributed to the remarkable "sense of calm" he felt as Sunday's 36-hole final against Paul Casey came to a climax. Poulter had never felt as much in control as he completed a 4&2 victory, which should stand to him when he next gets into contention at the Majors -- he was an impressive second to Padraig Harrington at the 2008 British Open in Birkdale.
At first glance, Poulter and Harrington might appear like polar opposites but behind that brash exterior, the Englishman is as grimly determined as Ireland's triple Major champion. He's more precise from tee to green; his short game is not quite as good as the gifted Dubliner's but his putting probably is better, which really is saying something.
For all that, the shot of Poulter's championship was an exquisite chip from a swale to the right of the 15th green on Sunday evening, setting up the birdie which would finally break Casey's heart.
"It was the toughest shot I had. The ball had a lot of mud on it and it was quite a bare lie so I had to hit it absolutely perfectly," said Poulter. And that's precisely what he did. "My short game has been as good in the last week as it's ever been."
Reminded of Poulter's extravagant claim in a magazine article two years ago that on his good days he's second only to Tiger (a quote taken out of context, the embarrassed Englishman insisted at the time), Casey said: "Ian will always tell you exactly what he's thinking, which makes me smile.
"Yet if he believes it, and he does, there's no reason why he couldn't get to that spot (in the world). It's not about talent, it's about a player's work ethic and his belief and all the other attributes that go into being a great golfer.
"Everyone chuckled when we read those comments but I know how hard Ian works and how much he cares about it. So, deep down, I for one thought it was not such an outrageous comment. I think he showed today he's pretty good."
For me, the most telling of Poulter's six matches was his comprehensive 7&6 shutout of Sergio Garcia in the semi-final. The brittle, cranky Spaniard was never given the slightest whiff of hope by his opponent's precision play.
Poulter is the world's finest match player in more than name alone. He's certain of his place at the Ryder Cup next October and even if he gets up Monty's nose, the canny Scot knows he won't find a better leader in the field at Celtic Manor.
Now he's notched his first PGA Tour victory in five years on US soil and has claimed his country's first victory at WGC events, Poulter's ability to putt well under pressure establishes him as Europe's most likely candidate to follow Harrington into the winning circle at the Majors.
No longer will anyone laugh when this unlikely hero from Hitchin talks of mauling the Tiger.
Light at end of tunnel for injury-ravaged McGinley
PAUL McGINLEY can, at last, see an end to his injury nightmare.
Cleared to resume light practice only a fortnight ago after undergoing a sixth operation on his left knee in November, the Dubliner has set his sights on a comeback at next month's Hassan II Trophy in Morocco.
"Considering the history of that knee, the scans were good," said the 2005 Volvo Masters winner.
"I am working closely with Dr Liam Hennessy, who is overseeing my rehab."
After two weeks in San Diego, where he visited the TaylorMade test centre, McGinley has moved on to Palm Springs for further warm-weather work.