England owns three of top six spots in world rankings


MARANA, Ariz. – Ten years ago this week, England had only two golfers among the top 100 in the world.

It doesn’t take long to find them now.

Lee Westwood, who won the European Tour money title a year ago, remained at No. 4 in the world. Ian Poulter moved up to No. 5 in the ranking published Monday because of his Match Play Championship victory over Paul Casey, who is No. 6.

And they have plenty of company right behind them.

“I just think that there’s been a lot of great talent in England for such a long time,” Poulter said. “And it’s so nice to see guys actually deliver on the golf course. We’ve been waiting for a long time.”

Consider the inaugural Match Play Championship at La Costa Resort a dozen years ago. The only Englishmen in the 64-man field were Westwood and Nick Faldo, and neither lasted more than a day – Westwood because he never got beyond the second round, Faldo because he was the No. 64 seed and played Tiger Woods.

England started with nine players at Dove Mountain and kept the flag flying all week.

The next step is to win a major, which no Englishman has done since Nick Faldo beat Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters.

“It’s about time the guys that have put themselves in position – 4, 5 and 6 in the world, I guess – should step up to the play and hopefully deliver on that,” Poulter said.

Westwood has come close each of the last two years, missing putts on the 72nd hole in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the British Open at Turnberry that would have put him in a playoff. Casey started the final round of the 2004 Masters only two shots behind, but couldn’t keep pace with Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els on the last day.

Poulter was the runner-up at Royal Birkdale two years ago, and while he was four shots behind, he stood over a 15-foot par putt on the final hole believing it might decide the tournament because of the windy conditions. And he made it.

That was the year Poulter was so determined to improve his putting that he stayed in one spot for hours on the practice green. He left behind two yellow footprints, because he was there so long that the grass beneath his feet had died.

Poulter may not have the raw skills of Westwood and Casey, and he certainly doesn’t have the junior pedigree. The others weren’t working in a pro shop as teens, nor did it take them four years to get tour cards.

Even so, Poulter is not lacking confidence.

It takes moxie to dress the way he does, for one thing. Poulter was known for his wardrobe well before anything he achieved on the golf course. He now designs his clothes, and it sounds as though he can’t survive on the road without an ironing board.

The 34-year-old also drew attention two years ago in a magazine piece when he suggested he was the only real challenger to Woods.

“Don’t get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer,” Poulter was quoted as saying in Britain’s version of Golf World magazine. “But I know I haven’t played to my full potential, and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.”

Poulter was No. 22 in the world when the article came out in spring 2008. At the Match Play Championship, Woods passed him in the locker room and said playfully, “Hey, No. 2.”

It no longer looks so far out of reach.

“I just felt that if I could deliver what I believed I could, then I could put myself in a good situation,” Poulter said. “I’ve certainly done that over the last 18 months. And I’ve certainly been able to deliver on that today. It’s so nice to see myself at No. 5 and get higher and higher up the world rankings, and hopefully I can keep going in that direction.”

England is not the new world power. That distinction still belongs to the United States, which offers 1-2-3 in Woods, Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, and which still has 12 players among the top 30. England is next with five.

Casey won his first PGA Tour event last year in the Houston Open and was poised to made a run at the European Tour money title until a rib injury cost him the second half of the season.

He was not able to finish 72 holes until December, and the best indication of his recovery was playing 114 holes at Dove Mountain over five days.

Pride has returned to English golf, with six players among the top 100 who have competed in the Ryder Cup. In the last Ryder Cup, Faldo was criticized for using his captain’s picks on Casey and Poulter. That might be one of the few things Faldo got right at Valhalla.