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Kindred spirits? Poulter and TPC Sawgrass both like to show their teeth

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – This is Ian Poulter’s kind of place.

Architect Pete Dye created a feisty, maddening, confounding test at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, a design that frustrates so many of those who try to conquer it.

That makes Poulter a sort of kindred spirit.

At his best in all those Ryder Cups, that’s how Americans remember him. He’s the feisty Euro with the maddening ability to frustrate opponents.

Poulter appreciates the unrelenting challenges Dye presents.

“I don’t really think of it in architectural terms, but I do genuinely like this course,” Poulter said. “It’s a good, tricky test, one that rewards great shots and very badly penalizes bad shots. From that perspective, if you are in control of your golf ball, you can really play well here.”

With a 6-under-par 66 Friday, Poulter was in control. He was in Ryder Cup mode in a genuine stadium atmosphere.

At 9-under overall, he is just three shots behind the leaders, fellow Englishman Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Rory McIlroy (65).

When Poulter wasn’t rolling in a long birdie putt Friday, he was holing out from off the greens. Making his start on the back nine, he jumpstarted his round at the 16th, chipping in for eagle from 54 feet. He chipped in again from beyond 50 feet at the 18th for birdie. He played a string of eight holes in 7 under in the middle of his round. He rolled in a 40-foot birdie at the fifth.

“His ball striking has been fantastic,” said James Walton, Poulter’s caddie. “He came here playing really well, with momentum and confidence.”

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Poulter, 43, is doing just about everything but winning so far this year. In consecutive starts, he was T-6 at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, T-3 at the Dubai Desert Classic, T-6 at the Saudi International and T-3 at the WGC-Mexico Championship.

Everything seems in place for a hard weekend run at finally win this championship and becoming the first Englishman to take this title. He has come close here, finishing second in 2009, when Henrik Stenson won, and second again in 2017, when Si Woo Kim won.

Poulter wouldn’t rush thinking about what that would mean, though.

“We’re a long way out,” he said. “This golf course, as we know, has bitten many people, with a few holes to go. So, I'll be happy tonight, looking back after today's round, even though I finished with a [bogey-6]. It’s still a decent score today on a difficult course, but we’ve got a long weekend ahead.”

Poulter is looking for his fourth PGA Tour title and 14th worldwide victory.

“He just really likes the way you have to think your way around this course,” Walton said. “He enjoys this kind of challenge, where you have to hit it to the right spots, position golf.”

Poulter felt like he won here two years ago.

That’s the year the wheels seemed to be coming off his game. He was derailed with that foot injury in 2016, when he had to take four months off to heal and couldn’t play the Ryder Cup. He was struggling off the course, with the closure of his clothing brand. He sunk beyond No. 200 in the world and teetered on the brink of losing his fully exempt status while playing on a medical extension.

“It has been miserable,” he said back then. “There’s no other way to explain it.”

That’s why he said his second-place finish here felt like a victory.

“It felt like a victory for a number of reasons,” Poulter said. “I mean, to get back in the top 50 [in the world rankings], to snowball playing some good golf after securing my card in a way, which enabled me to go back to Europe and kind of relax. That was, for me, a level of a win. It wasn't, obviously, holding a trophy, but it was on many other levels.”

This golf course helped get Poulter back on track, back to where he is today. He sees the test becoming feistier, with cool northerly winds forecast for the weekend.

“It’s going to be an interesting weekend,” he said.