Ian Poulter doesn’t see himself the way others do.
They see an Englishman with spiked hair who was brazen enough to wear all pink before a New York gallery in the final round of a U.S. Open. They see a player with the audacity to scatter golf tees with the final score – Europe 18 1/2 , USA 9 1/2 – on the driving range in Ireland two weeks after the 2004 Ryder Cup, a playful jab at the Americans.
What they don’t see is the photo Poulter keeps on his mobile phone of a rundown Ford Fiesta.
“My blue rust bucket,” Poulter says proudly as he flips through the photos until he finds it. He bought the used car in 1995 with the meager earnings from winning a small-time tournament when he worked as an assistant pro.
But that’s why he keeps the picture. It’s a reminder of an amazing journey filled with defiance, determination and double portions of confidence, all of which helped him achieve so much with so little.
Poulter now goes to Augusta National as a serious candidate to win the Masters. He is coming off his first World Golf Championship title and is ranked in the top 10 in the world for the first time in his career.
Surprising? Not to him.
“When someone hasn’t been exposed to golf at a high level early on, it becomes a shock when someone does something,” Poulter said. “Eight-five percent of the top 50 in the world played college golf, the Walker Cup, good amateur golf. There’s a background story that has them jumping on the train and going on their way.
“That’s why it’s a surprise to people why I’ve gotten so far.”
At an age when his peers aspired to play in the Walker Cup or qualify for the British Open, Poulter, now 34, was putting new grips on clubs, changing spikes in soggy shoes, folding shirts in the pro shop and giving group lessons to juniors on the weekend. Between jobs, he watched Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros on TV, believing that could be him one day.
Poulter never doubted that. Not once.
“I didn’t know any differently,” he said. “I just felt that if I worked hard enough and practiced, then I would have a chance to get out on tour and win golf tournaments.”
Few others had reason to believe him. Some even discouraged him.
His teachers mocked him for bringing golf clubs to class so he could hit balls on the football field during recess. They said he was wasting his time. The club manager at Chesfield Downs didn’t make it easy, requiring Poulter to take holiday time to play in local tournaments.
One of those was the Panshanger Classic, where Poulter shot 66-66 and won 1,800 pounds (roughly $2,700 nowadays), money he used to buy his blue rust bucket. To prove a point, he took the trophy to the shop and set it on the counter for the club manager to see.
“I was not very politely asked to remove it,” Poulter said. “He came into work and says, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I’ve just won the tournament.’ And he said, ‘You can just take it off the counter.’ I got a written warning for what I said to him, and I left a week later.”
Small wonder he is perceived as brash and cocky.
Justin Rose, one of his best friends in golf and his roommate during their days in the minor tours, recalls playing golf in South Africa not long after Poulter got his European Tour card for the first time.
“My brother remembers Ian saying, ‘Now that I’ve got my European Tour card, it’s going to be easy. I’ll probably win a couple of times.’ And my brother said, ‘I just played with you and I beat you.’ But that’s the way he is,” Rose said. “And it’s served him in good stead. Now he has the game to back up the confidence. And he’s always had the confidence.”
Geoff Ogilvy also remembers playing with Poulter before his rookie season in Europe. In some respects, Poulter hasn’t changed. He was brash and funny. But his golf? Ogilvy can’t believe the turnaround.
“His game was not where it is now,” Ogilvy said. “He had a lot going for him around the greens. From where he was then to now, he is the most improved player in the world. He was a 4 handicap when he turned pro. Most guys on tour were shooting 65 when they were 16.
“But his No. 1 attribute is belief,” Ogilvy said. “He’s not afraid. It’s almost like he’s very defiant.”
Poulter is known as much – if not more – for his clothes than anything he has done on the golf course. He famously wore trousers of the Union Jack flag in the 2004 British Open at Royal Troon. Another year, he wore pants with the claret jug down one side of the leg. Ballesteros looked at them and said, “That’s as close as he’ll get to the claret jug.”
Poulter is used to hearing doubts. It’s been that way his whole life.
“There are plenty of naturally talented, better golfers out there,” he said. “I just think mentally I might be stronger. And I’ve got a lot of self-belief in what I know I can do.”
What makes his rise so remarkable is that he had so few good experiences to carry him through the struggles.
It was nothing like Rose, who had a heralded amateur career and tied for fourth in the 1998 British Open at age 17. He turned pro, then missed 21 consecutive cuts.
“What got me through it was belief that I had to be good to have the amateur career I did, and if I worked hard, I could get back,” Rose said. “If I didn’t have that, I would have struggled.”
And what did Poulter rely on? Rose just shook his head.
“You see a lot of kids, and you almost want to say to them, ‘Listen guys, enough is enough. Move on,”’ Rose said. “It just shows you that sometimes that real determined streak … I mean, it’s amazing where Ian has come from.”
Poulter is more interested in where he’s going.
He caught plenty of grief from a magazine interview two years ago in which he said when he reaches his full potential, “it will be just me and Tiger.” It was a slap at the rest of the players, suggesting they didn’t have what it took to challenge the world’s No. 1. At the Match Play Championship that year, Woods passed Poulter walking out of the locker room and said, “Hey, No. 2.”
But Poulter is rarely embarrassed over his words, his clothing, his play.
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He has done a brilliant job marketing himself through his clothing, and he believes that in time, he will be known as much for his golf. A World Golf Championship certainly helps. A major championship would change everything.
“I would say a lot of people over time would probably see me as the golfer that has worked hard on his game,” he said. “Yet you’ve still got people who don’t watch a lot of golf that might think I’m cocky, arrogant, outspoken. I’ve heard it quite a lot. I see myself as someone who, from where I come from, always had the self-belief that I could achieve things in golf at a high level. And I’m now starting to achieve those goals.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “But I’ve always believed that. Always. And I always will believe that.”