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Walking the Walk

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Waste Management Phoenix OpenSCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Fresh off his first win in the U.S., Ian Poulter is changing American hearts and minds, one day and one win at a time. At the rate he’s going, he’ll soon have a gallery full of fans in teal, plaid slacks.

“Honestly, before I played with him I thought he was kind of flashy and arrogant,” said

Edison Peres, Poulter’s pro-am partner Wednesday at the Waste Management Open. “But he’s much more real and down to earth than I expected, like your next door neighbor.”

Peres is a senior vice president for Cisco Systems and has played in several pro-ams.

“Some pros don’t want to be there,” he said. “But with Ian it’s like a Sunday round with your buddies. Everyone wanted to take a picture with him and he accommodated them all. These are the kind of characters you want in golf.”

Mark and Erin Montgomery, vacationing from Richmond, Va., followed Poulter for a few holes.

“He talked to us for a little while and he was very pleasant,” Mark said. “I guess we thought he was a little more arrogant but maybe that’s the clothing. He was receptive.”

Poulter is well aware of his public perception, or rather misconception.

“I guess the misconception may be that I’m arrogant or cocky,” he told me as we walked during the pro-am. “But anybody who knows me understands that’s not really true.”

Not surprisingly, people look at Poulter with his bold outfits and Paris runway model strut and make assumptions.

“Of course they do,” Poulter added. “Because appearance is what people first get drawn to and I guess if I’m going to put myself out there in colorful outfits and looking different than the others then yes people are going to have their own opinions of why I’m doing it and what is his reason for doing it.

“But, to be honest, I just want to present myself on the golf course as well as I can. I always make sure that my stuff is ironed and pressed and you know I just want to take pride in how I do my job.”

That sounds a lot like Payne Stewart. And the Tour gives an award in his name every year to the player who presents himself in a manner that lifts the game.

Professional golf is still a show and if everyone dressed in khakis, well…“we’d be in trouble,” Poulter said finishing my thought. “Golf wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is.”

As a teenager, Poulter watched Stewart from behind the counter of the pro shop at his local club in England. Poulter left school at 15 to become an assistant pro and was a 4 handicap at the time.

“I was selling Mars bars and tee pegs,” he recalled. “And I guess coming from where I came from, dressing the way I do and being fairly outspoken I don’t think people felt that I could back it up or that I had. Now I can back it up.”

As he said it I thought that might come out in print as being arrogant, but knowing full well that it wasn’t, that it was just the declaration of a man who truly believes in himself.

“I do feel that if I play to my potential I’ve got a good chance to achieve anything I want,” he added. “That’s just what I’ve believed in for a while and last week to me proves that I’ve delivered on a bigger stage than what I’ve ever delivered in the past. But I’d felt that I’d been close. It just hadn’t come out yet.”

After his Match Play victory, Poulter spent a full day in Palm Springs shooting a TV commercial for Cobra. He’s had little time for reflection although he’s been asked to reflect several times in that same span.

“I don’t know what it means because I haven’t had time to sit down to work out what it means,” he said. But I said to Terry [Mundy], my caddie, walking to the range today, when I get a phone call from Greg Norman to say ‘Ian I just want to congratulate you for a great week’ and to have a call from Faldo, and a text message from Monty, I mean these were people I looked up to when I worked in the pro shop.”

Poulter is a virtual lock to play for Captain Monty at the Ryder Cup in Wales in early October. Monty and Poulter have had their differences, particularly over Poulter’s decision to skip last year’s Vivendi Trophy in Paris, a Ryder Cup style match between GB&I and Continental Europe.

This summer, Monty is hoping his Ryder Cup stalwarts show up at Celtic Manor for the regularly scheduled European Tour stop as a way to get comfortable with the course. It doesn’t sound like Poulter will be there because of a hectic schedule during that time.

“I’m doing a Mastercard golf outing at Celtic Manor the Monday of the French Open in June so I’ll get a really good look at the golf course,” he said. “So if I don’t play it’s not like I wouldn’t have been there.”

He’s also quick to point out that he had not seen Valhalla until Tuesday the week of the Ryder Cup and ended up playing pretty well there, going 4-0-1 as the only bright spot for the Europeans in a losing effort.

Near term, he’ll take next week off then play Doral. He’ll then take two weeks off before the Masters, but won’t just be ironing his clothes.

“I’ll go up to Augusta for three days during those two weeks off, do some homework so I can get it all done before the tournament,” he said. “I love that place.”

Poulter broke momentarily from our conversation, and turned his attention to Mundy, who has been on his bag for four years.

“Two-fifty-five to the front,” said Mundy, directing his boss to the second shot at the par-5 15th at TPC Scottsdale.

He handed his man a 3-wood. Poulter sets up beautifully over a golf ball, just the right knee flex, arms hanging with absolutely no tension. He swung in perfect balance. The ball took off low, steadily rising and dead at the flag, landing softly on the front of the green.

Poulter smiled and ambled down the fairway, and from the eyes of those fortunate to have seen it, this was not an arrogant man strutting away, but a content man walking with purpose.