PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Drama didn’t race into Sunday at PGA National with quite the dizzying speed of one of Ian Poulter’s Ferraris, but it was close.
With Poulter’s stunning shank at the fifth tee, the Honda Classic went from a yawner to a thriller in a heart-thumping hurry.
After Poulter hooked his drive into the very same lake off the sixth tee, the leaderboard looked as bunched as an IndyCar race running under a caution flag.
For better or worse, Poulter steered the frenzied action in the suspended final round on the Champion Course.
Somehow, some way, when darkness finally suspended play, Poulter marched off the seventh green tied for the lead with Paul Casey, who was through nine holes.
At 7 under overall, they were a shot ahead of Patrick Reed (through 7 holes) and three ahead of a pack of five players that includes Phil Mickelson (through 10 holes).
The field will be back in place at 8 a.m. Monday to conclude the final round.
From three shots up at the fifth tee to a shot down walking off the sixth green, Poulter was beyond frustrated with himself.
You could almost see tendrils of smoke coming off his head.
Asked what he was muttering to himself internally walking to the seventh tee, Poulter’s eyes widened to that saucer-like intensity so familiar to golf fans.
“You don't really want to know,” Poulter said. “Trust me, you don't. It's not newspaper or Internet worthy. I was pissed. I was seriously pissed.”
Poulter appeared in total control of this tournament, making one wonderful swing after another in shooting 64 in the second round and 66 in the third. His rhythm went south at that fifth tee, where he shanked an 8-iron sideways, off a cart path and into a part of the lake that no player in Honda’s nine-year history at PGA National may ever have reached before.
“It was a lack of concentration,” Poulter said. “I tried to take too much off an 8-iron and hit a beautiful shank.”
Poulter made double bogey. Adding to the dizzying turn of events, Reed holed out from off the green for birdie, putting up a steep slope and a winding turn from 34 feet away.
The three-shot swing was a blow to Poulter, leaving him briefly tied with Reed.
“I didn't even realize that I had a three-shot lead,” Poulter said. “I was in cruise control, shall we say, not making bad swings. You take your foot off the accelerator for one second, all of a sudden, you find yourself completely out of position, making an easy double bogey.”
Poulter, 39, has never closed out a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event, but that’s because, surprisingly, he never held a 54-hole lead, until Sunday at PGA National. He has won 16 times around the world, with his two PGA Tour titles including the 2010 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the 2012 WGC-HSBC Champions in China, where he came from behind in the final round.
On Sunday, Poulter’s lead was gone after he hooked that tee shot at the sixth into the lake and made bogey.
That led to the scolding he gave himself, some self-talk that actually got him back a share of the lead at the seventh hole, where he stiffed a 6-iron to 3 feet to make birdie.
“Yeah, I was internally very angry, shall we say,” Poulter said. “And when I do that, obviously, my heart rate goes up slightly, and, obviously that sometimes is what needs to kick in, to kick in the adrenaline. So the shot on seven was fueled with adrenaline, because I was so pissed off.”
How important was that birdie to end his day?
“Massive, massive,” Poulter said. “It was a bit of a body blow, shall we say, five and six, coming out of nowhere.
“It was some pretty good golf today, I've got to be honest, and that just came out of left field.”
With Poulter in trouble, fellow Englishman Casey quietly climbed the leaderboard playing two holes in front. Casey, 37, is seeking to add to his lone PGA Tour title, the 2009 Shell Houston Open. He’s a 13-time European Tour winner who is devoting himself solely to the PGA Tour this season.
“I'm eager to win,” Casey said. “I feel like I'm playing good golf, and there are no obstacles in the way. Everything's great on and off the golf course. No two tours to worry about. There's just nothing standing there, nothing that's distracting me, which is a great feeling to have.
“It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean I'll win, but I hope I win this year. I'd love to win tomorrow."
While Poulter has never held a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, he has proved himself a formidable closer on the European Tour. He has closed the deal seven of nine times taking a lead into the final round on that tour.
At day’s end, Poulter rode into the clubhouse sitting alongside his 10-year-old son, Luke. Despite all the adventure, Poulter is still very much in the running for his first stroke-play title on U.S. soil.
“I'm playing good,” Poulter said. “So, I just need to be patient, keep making the swings I've made.”
With the Honda Classic feeling like it will open under a caution flag with Monday’s conclusion of the final round, Poulter will be looking to lead the race with a steadier hand.