HUMBLE, Texas – After one day at the Houston Open, and with his opening round not yet complete, Ian Poulter started packing.
The Englishman had started the week with his travel plans still up in the air. A loss in the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last week was bittersweet, as Poulter thought his win in the Round of 16 was enough to secure his return to the Masters via a spot in the Official World Golf Ranking's top 50.
Instead, he got housed by Kevin Kisner in the quarterfinals and moved up only to 51st. In the aftermath, Poulter took to Twitter to vent his frustrations about the individuals in Austin who had fed him incorrect information about the ranking projections – and his Masters status – in between his matches Saturday.
So he debated whether or not to even tee it up this week at the Golf Club of Houston in a last-ditch effort to crash the party at Augusta National. Never one to hide his emotions, Poulter admitted that he struggled to keep things under wraps even after flying into town late Tuesday night.
His inner turmoil only worsened as he played his first 17 holes in 1 over, stranded by darkness with a single hole to play, and with the rest of the field feasting on a soft and vulnerable course. So he began to pack his belongings, still sorting through his frustrations from the week prior and expecting to miss the cut.
“I was a little warm under the collar, yeah. Some people getting in my head space, which is never good. Never good for my psyche, anyway,” Poulter said. “Maybe I was a bit angry Thursday. Maybe I was kind of forcing it, trying to force my way into a tournament. Didn’t work, had to re-think it, had to kind of blow the cobwebs out Thursday night and reset and go again.”
As it turns out, Poulter’s reset was nothing short of extraordinary.
Thanks in large part to a putting adjustment he made during the early hours Friday morning, Poulter has gone on a tear while racing up the leaderboard. He surged into contention with a second-round 64, tacked on a bogey-free 65 and suddenly shares the 54-hole lead with Beau Hossler.
After a whirlwind 48 hours, Poulter now has everything to play for: his first worldwide win since 2012, his first ever stroke-play win in the U.S., and yes, the final ticket to the Masters.
“I’m in a funny position, right? I said to you guys I’ve got no expectations going out on the golf course. I didn’t have any expectations, I just went out and played golf,” Poulter said. “There’s a good group of players right now that are currently just behind that are going to be pressing, so I need to press as well.”
For the second straight week, Poulter is employing the putter he used to bedevil the U.S. team at the 2012 Ryder Cup. The results in Houston have been just as impressive as they were at Medinah, as Poulter has yet to take more than 26 putts in any round.
Dating back to Thursday, his last 41 holes have included 16 birdies, 25 pars and no bogeys as he vaulted from outside the top 120 into a share of the lead. In Poulter’s mind, the switch back to a weapon that has performed well in the past gives him “no excuses.”
“When you grab something that you know has done wonderful things, you have to take the onus then because you know it’s not the putter; it’s generally the person holding it,” Poulter said. “So I could go out, not blame anyone else and really try to find some good mojo, some good memories.”
Granted, it’s hardly a one-horse race. There will be 12 players within three shots of the lead when the final round begins, chief among them Hossler who has had brushes with contention in the past but hopes to build on the lessons he learned as he looks for his maiden victory.
“I expect more than likely the guy who wins to be within four or five groups of the final pairing,” Hossler said. “But that said, there’s so many good players right there, it’s a very bunched leaderboard still and I think it’s going to be a dog fight down there.”
After last week’s information debacle, Poulter refuses to discuss the possibility of earning the final spot in the Masters in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Despite the fact that he had one foot out the door as recently as Thursday night, he’s now within reach of every goal he set when he decided to honor his commitment to play.
The circumstances are different this time around, but Poulter is improbably within one good round of a return trip to Augusta National – this time with no world rankings projections required.
“I’ll have no emotion at all. I’m going to go play golf,” he said. “I’m in a no-lose situation. I haven’t won a stroke-play event on the PGA Tour, and I’m in a position where I’ve got an opportunity to. So people will back against me, that’s fine. I’ll go and do my job.”