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  • Ian Poulter has put himself in position to win his second tournament in three weeks, but he remains one of golf's most controversial figures.
By Daniel Rapaport
April 13, 2018

Ian Poulter shot a bogey-free 64 in the second round of the RBC Heritage on Friday and held a share of the lead when he finished up play. It's the latest positive development in what has been quite the resurgence for Poulter on the PGA Tour this season.

The fiery Englishman, who is well-known to American golf fans for his animated Ryder Cup demeanor and the funky pants he used to wear regularly, dipped to as low as 207th in the Official World Golf Ranking in February of last year. That's quite a slide for a player who has been ranked as high as fifth in the world and had been a fixture in the top 30 or so for the better part of a decade.

On the north side of 40 years old and coming off his worst stretch of golf in quite a while, Poulter righted the ship as the weather warmed up last year. He finished in a tie for second at the Players Championship and added a solo third at the RBC Canadian Open in July to make his way back toward the top 50. But after a lackluster start to the 2018 season—he missed three of his first six cuts across the PGA and European Tours—Poulter found himself in danger of missing his second straight Masters after making 10 straight starts at Augusta National from 2007 to ’16. 

Never one to back away from a pressure situation, Poulter kicked it into gear at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and reached the quarterfinals, a performance he thought was good enough to get into the top 50 and thus earn a spot into the Masters. In fact, he was told by media members that he'd done enough by reaching the quarterfinals, so he was doubly upset after losing 8&6 to Kevin Kisner when he found out he would be ranked 51st come Monday. That left one last opportunity to get into the Masters: Win the Houston Open. 

That’s exactly what he did. Poulter drained a 20-footer on 18 to force a playoff with Beau Hossler, then clinched his ticket to Augusta when Hossler's bunker shot flew into the water on the first playoff hole. 

Poulter had a forgettable Masters, finishing in a tie for 44th, but he has put himself in position to win again this week at Harbour Town. His return to relevance has drawn strong reactions from some people, and the nature of those reactions can essentially be split into two geographic categories. Europeans are loving his resurgence, while many American golf fans don't particularly enjoy seeing his name atop leaderboards. 

Take a look at a sample of the mixed bag:

As is often the case with polarizing figures, the things people love about Poulter are the same things that bother the hell out of those who dislike him. So let's take a look at just why Poulter is such a hate-him-or-love-him figure.

He goes wild in the Ryder Cup

The Ryder Cup is the one golf tournament a year where screaming is not only tolerated, but sort of venerated. Under the guise of a team dynamic, players can scream "COME ON!" when they roll in a putt or "BOOM BABY" when they hole a wedge shot. 

Poulter saves his best play for the Ryder Cup, where he's developed a well-earned reputation as a remarkably clutch putter. (In fact, he switched back to the putter he used during Europe's comeback at Medinah in 2012 right before winning in Houston.) When he holes a putt or chip, he's not afraid to get excited. 

And he has made a ton of them—Poulter is 12–3 all-time in the competition and a perfect 4–0 in singles matches. Nobody likes to lose, especially not to a guy who is yelling, so Poulter's Ryder Cup antics have rubbed American golf fans the wrong way. To this I say, tough luck. The guy takes pride in representing Europe, and Americans love it when their own players show some fire. (Looking at you, Patrick Reed). If Poulter was American, we'd probably slap some endearing nickname like "Captain America" onto him. His fire during Ryder Cups brings out the best in everyone and makes the competition what it is. 

That "me and Tiger" quote

In 2008, Poulter was quoted in Golf Monthly U.K. magazine as saying the following: "The problem is I just don't rate anyone else. Don't get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger." 

As you might expect, that didn't go over well. At the time, Tiger was the world No. 1 and the owner of 13 major championships. Poulter was somewhere around No. 20 in the world at the time and had six wins (and no majors) to his name. The golf world saw the comment as nothing short of delusional arrogance, and it further cemented Poulter's reputation as a brash know-it-all. 

Shortly after the interview went public, Poulter said it had been taken out of context. "If people do play well over a period of two years, you can get to No. 2. You can't reach Tiger," Poulter said. "It would be a dream to see Tiger Woods and then me in the world rankings as you look down. What's wrong with that? Is it being rude? Is it being disrespectful to everybody else? I don't think so."

I don't really have a problem with what he said, whether it was taken out of context or not. What's wrong with an athlete expressing belief in himself? Guys in other sports do this all the time, but we hold golfers to a different standard. We expect them to be mild-mannered and humble, and when they're not, well, you've seen what happens. Remember in 2014 when Patrick Reed said he thought he was a top-five player? He was absolutely roasted, even after he'd won three tournaments in the span of seven months. 

Anti-Semitic slur

In 2010, Poulter, an Arsenal fan, referred to rival club Tottenham's fans as "yids," a derogatory slur aimed at Jews. (Tottenham has Jewish owners, and a large portion of England's Jewish population roots for the club). He later apologized and claimed he is "not racial in anyway." 

There's no defending this. End of story. He's smart enough to know that that remark has anti-Semitic undertones, whether he meant to convey them or not. 

He ate cereal from the Ryder Cup

After winning the Ryder Cup in 2010, Poulter posted a video of himself eating cereal and milk out of it with his children. People got mad, calling it "disrespectful." It wasn't the best look, but he didn't damage the trophy in any way, and you're entitled to have a little fun with a trophy that you've earned. If you don't want him to eat cereal out of it, don't let him win it.

In summation

Poulter is controversial because he bucks every golf convention. He speaks candidly, he says what's on his mind, he's not afraid to get in your face and he definitely crosses the line sometimes. Whether you love him or hate him, it's hard to argue that the game isn't more exciting when he's playing well. There simply aren't enough fiery personalities out there (though Reed is definitely one of them) that give fans something to argue about. Here's to hoping he continues his strong play and earns a spot at this year's Ryder Cup, where he'd be sure to ruffle more feathers.

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