- Ian Poulter was a mainstay at majors for a decade, and now he seems to be returning to that form as he is tied for fourth at the U.S. Open.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — “Lovely shot!”
“Good work, Poults!”
“Excellent, excellent! Lovely!”
Coming off the eighth tee box, tucked away in a corner of Shinnecock Hills where few fans camped Friday evening, a pack of devoted British fans clutching bottles of American beers cheered Ian Poulter with a politely frantic excitement. Three holes back were the galleries of Americans heckling Poulter about his almost-lost PGA Tour card, hollering quips about a few near-birdies he’d tapped in for easy par. It was just the Englishmen for this walk from tee to grass, the only group who’d committed to trailing Poulter through what had begun to look like the best round of golf of this year. He’d just hit a 279-yard drive smack in the middle of the fairway, coming off three birdies in his last four holes. The man they called Poults held second place outright in the U.S. Open, and his fans—one in particular—expected jubilation.
But Poulter was stoic, gaze straight ahead in a sort of Belichickian on-to-the-fairway kind of way.
The lone American in the traveling posse of Brits, discouraged by his non-response, turned to her friends. “Do you think,” she asked, “he even realizes you’re all British?”
It was the peak of Poulter’s day, before a sand trap and a seven-iron sent him from threatening Dustin Johnson’s four-under-par lead to tie for fourth in the field. After teeing off on the 10th hole, No. 8 would be the second-to-last of his day, and for a moment, Poulter looked like he might sign a scorecard that would put him in the U.S. Open lead. He was three under par, and then there was a triple bogey on the 8th hole and a bogey on the 9th, a half-hour that felt like disaster but left Poulter cracking jokes just minutes after his round came to an end.
“It just looked really stupid,” Poulter said, laughing, of his triple bogey, in which he turned a solid drive into a bunker shot clear across the green, followed by a botched chip from the rough into slightly better rough. Next, a chip that got Poulter on the green but just barely, and then, mercifully, just two putts into the hole.
“Yes, I felt stupid knifing the first one, and I felt more stupid semi-choking the next one, but I didn’t do much better on the next one either,” Poulter continued in his deconstruction of the hole he could have called his downfall. But instead, he was upbeat after a round that left him tied for fourth at even par, trailing only Johnson, Scott Piercy and Charley Hoffman. And why shouldn’t he be? Not a year and a half ago, Poulter was engaged in a months-long fight for his PGA Tour card—one he ultimately won on what can only be called a technicality. And now he’s within six strokes of the U.S. Open lead, one of three golfers who’ve been anything approximating consistent through two days at Shinnecock, a course where disaster comes as quickly as the weather changes.
On April Fools’ Day of 2017, Poulter hadn’t won an event since 2012—though he still had the confidence (or twisted sense of humor) to try to convince his Twitter followers that he’d earned a late Masters invite. By the start of the Valero Texas Open on April 20, he’d missed the cut three times already in the 2017 season, and that weekend, he shot two over par on Thursday and Friday. He was short of the cut, and with that, he believed, he lost his Tour card.
At the same time as Poulter’s fall from the golf elite, Brian Gay was also fighting for his Tour card. Gay’s argument with the PGA hinged on its formula, which had been revised in the middle of his medical exemption. Gay won his fight, and by extension, Poulter, too; when the Tour recalculated on Gay’s behalf, its math also rendered the other golfer eligible.
Since that stroke of luck by proxy, Poulter’s game has done more than enough to prove him deserving of his card. Three weeks after the Texas Open, he finished in a tie for second place at the 2017 Players Championship, and that July he placed third in the RBC Canadian Open. In the two major events for which he qualified last season—the British Open and the PGA Championship—he made the cut, and on the year finished with $2,098,346 in winnings, more than he’d earned since 2009.
This season, Poulter picked up where he left off, and on April 1, he won the Houston Open with a score of 19 under par on the weekend. Going into the U.S. Open, he was ranked No. 27 in the world, and signing a one-over-par scorecard on the second day of a tournament he’s been known to hate, at Shinnecock, a course he’s been known to despise, had to feel like gravy.
Poulter’s best U.S. Open finish came in 2006 at Winged Foot, when he tied for 12th. Since then, he’s withdrawn once and missed one cut, but after a string of 12 consecutive years qualifying, he’s been at home on his sofa the past two. Poulter’s world ranking left this year’s trip to Shinnecock in no doubt, but just two months ago, he missed qualifying for the Masters for the second straight year. This wave of success feels natural—Poulter was a mainstay at majors for a decade—but it’s still new, and Poulter is going to enjoy it no matter how many times he’s asked about the two holes that could obscure a great round if he let them.
“One over par in the U.S. Open; I’m not sure how else to look at it but like that,” he said. “There’s only a couple of U.S. Opens that if someone offered you that on a Wednesday, where you perhaps wouldn’t take it. I’m right here. I’m T-4. There’s a disaster on every single hole. … I’m in the hunt. I’m happy.”
Poulter will need to count on a few of those disasters breaking against Johnson in the coming days, but for now, he says, he’s approaching the weekend with an attitude that’s “a little bit carefree.” It’s an about-face for a golfer who for 14 years has seen the name Shinnecock and shuddered in memory of his first U.S. Open, played here, when he missed the cut and flew home Friday evening. On Friday this year, Poulter walked Shinnecock like he was taking revenge—until the course fought back. “It punishes poor shots,” Poulter explained, “like I’ve proved.”
But for 16 holes, at least, Poulter got the best of the course he talks about like it’s spurned him, in a tournament he’s more comfortable excoriating than celebrating.
And that’s what he took with him to the practice area with his seven-iron, and that’s what he’ll remember Saturday as he threatens in a major tournament for the first time in three years, the most familiar surprise on the Shinnecock leaderboard.