Poulter making another run at the claret jug at Birkdale

SOUTHPORT, England (AP) Ian Poulter spent last year's British Open in a TV commentary booth. It wasn't an experience he particularly enjoyed.

Sidelined by a foot injury, it was hard for a competitive animal like Poulter to sit out his home major and watch others challenge for a title he craves the most.

He started making up for lost time Thursday.

Poulter is taking another run at the claret jug, shooting a 3-under 67 at Royal Birkdale that left him among the first-round leaders at a venue where he came closest to winning the British Open.

Back in 2008, it was a fist-pumping, nattily dressed Poulter that finished second to Padraig Harrington for what remains his best Open finish.

The Poulter of 2017 isn't as in-your-face and some of the bravado has gone after a career dip that has seen him miss the last five major championships as well as his beloved Ryder Cup in 2016.

He is still a popular figure in these parts - he was clapped onto every green Thursday - and is happy being back in the conversation at a major, having only made the field at Birkdale through final qualifying.

''It's too easy to get down when you're not playing those big tournaments,'' he said. ''And it's easy to get down when golf seems to be pretty difficult. It makes it even more special to be back here today playing.''

Poulter birdied the par-5 17th hole from the bunker, then got up-and-down from another bunker on the 18th to post his lowest first-round score at a major. His only bogey on what he describes as his favorite course on the Open rotation came at the par-3 No. 7 after landing his ball near the lip of a bunker.

After making a 7-foot putt for par at the last, he shook his fist and gave his 13-year-old son a high-five at the back of the green. The strut and swagger is back for a player known best for his Ryder Cup exploits with the European team.

Much of that is down to being able to play with more freedom and less pressure following an unexpected reprieve in April, when he thought he had lost his PGA Tour card.

Poulter played only 13 tournaments in 2016 because of injury and didn't earn enough FedEx Cup points or money in early 2017 to remain fully exempt. Only when Brian Gay alerted officials to a discrepancy in the points structure, for players competing with a medical exemption, did Poulter get to keep his card.

Since then, he has finished tied for second at The Players Championship, qualified for the Open at his home course at Woburn, and came to Birkdale off a good display at the Scottish Open, where he was tied for the lead after three rounds.

''I'm proud of the way I've been able to refocus,'' said Poulter, who is ranked No. 78, ''get things back on the straight and narrow, clear away some of the noise in the background, and get back to really focusing hard on what I need to do to get the level of golf back that I think I can play.

''I'm definitely playing with a bit more confidence and that's definitely showed over the last couple of months.''

---

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.