GLENEAGLES, Scotland – His transformation can be unnerving when he’s mustering all of his powers in a Ryder Cup match.
Ian Poulter’s eyes get scary large, like some cartoon artist drew them up. They swell like saucer plates in an apparent struggle to contain some giant, wild spirit from bursting out. He stomps around greens when putts fall, roaring and throwing fist pumps like a man possessed.
Poulter was asked Thursday if he thinks he’s scary when he sees highlights of his great Ryder Cup triumphs.
“Yes, very scary,” Poulter quipped.
His four young children barely recognize daddy when his Ryder Cup alter ego takes over.
“I think they’re scared,” Poulter says.
Poulter enters Friday’s 40th staging of the Ryder Cup as a vital figure in Europe’s attempt to win these matches for the sixth time in the last seven tries. He is a force the Americans are focused on containing. U.S. captain Tom Watson made that clear shortly after arriving at Gleneagles this week.
“Whenever you beat the stud on the opposing team, that gives your team a boost, not a question,” Watson said.
Rory McIlroy is unquestionably one of Europe’s studs, with his world No. 1 ranking and his two major championship victories this year, but Poulter is the heart and soul of the European team. He has helped the Euros win three of the four Ryder Cups he has played. He carries a staggering 12-3 record. He was 4-0 leading the Euros in their epic comeback at Medinah two years ago and has won seven consecutive Ryder Cup matches, 11 of his last 12.
“Ian, with his record, is an 80 percent victor over the series of matches he has played in,” Watson said. “We would like to reduce that.”
Poulter hears respect in that.
“I take Tom Watson's comment as a huge compliment,” Poulter said.
Poulter almost certainly hears a challenge, too. He showed at Medinah what feistiness he can muster when a great sportsman challenges him. Seeing how important Poulter was to the European team at Medinah, NBA great Michael Jordan took it upon himself as an “honorary member” of the U.S. team to try to get Poulter off his game. In a late Saturday afternoon match, Jordan poked his finger in Poulter’s chest coming off a green on the back nine, wagged his finger at him and stared him down.
“Ian is a strong character,” Jordan said in an NBC Road to the Ryder Cup series. “When I poked him, he responded. He birdied 13 and 14.”
Poulter, teaming with McIlroy in a fourball match, made five consecutive birdies to help defeat the American team of Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner. The Euros were down 10-4 overall in the team match, but that late electric run would help the Euros narrow the deficit and spark them to their historic Sunday singles comeback.
What was Poulter thinking after Jordan got in his face?
“I said, ‘Screw you, I’m’ going to hole this putt,’ I’m not allowing him to get in my space,” Poulter said. “He was playing his basketball game, and it was my court.”
The story is part of Poulter’s growing Ryder Cup legend now.
As a player outside the Ryder Cup, Poulter, 38, hasn’t been able to conjure the same aura of invincibility. He has won 12 European Tour titles and two PGA Tour victories, but he has never won a major.
What is it about the Ryder Cup that makes Poulter so formidable?
“I'm very proud of my record and proud that I've put a lot of blue on the board,” Poulter said. “I'm passionate as a team player ...
“There are players on the team that get very pumped up. I'm obviously one of those guys, and I'm happy to help. I loved my football as a kid, and I'm kind of reliving those football moments as a golfer now. I think I played football back in the day like I play golf right now.”
Poulter takes a target on his back into these matches because defeating him early potentially brings more than a point to the Americans. Beating Poulter early potentially takes some of the spirit out of the Euros as a whole. Taking Poulter’s intensity down, putting a pout on his face, resonates beyond a point.
“If you’re as successful in Ryder Cups as Ian Poulter is, you’re going to be a targeted man,” European captain Paul McGinley said. “I think Ian Poulter is relishing that. He likes playing the villain. He was the villain in America in Medinah. He was the guy they all wanted to bring down, and he went out and produced.”
With Poulter enduring an off year, Americans should be licking their chops over a chance to take some swagger out of Poulter’s gait.
In 16 PGA Tour starts this year, Poulter has one top-10 finish, a tie for sixth at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. He has one top-10 finish on the European Tour this season, a tie for fifth at the Volvo China Open.
Going into the Ryder Cup at Medinah, Poulter was coming off a summer where he tied for ninth at the British Open and tied for third at the PGA Championship.
“Every Ryder Cup you question is Ian Poulter going to perform, and he does,” McGinley said. “His record is sensational, and he's very proud of it, and he's motivated this week, obviously. It's not something we are afraid of.”
Poulter is likely to end up paired with Justin Rose, but he would be a fit with just about anybody. Poulter and Rose have been together in all three practice rounds this week. They teamed twice in foursomes at Medinah and won both times.
“I’m ready,” Poulter said. “I’ve been ready for a few weeks now ... I feel the game is coming on nicely the last couple weeks, and I feel confident that we are going to go out there and play very well.”