HUMBLE, Texas – With his back against the wall and a trip to the Masters once again slipping away, Ian Poulter summoned all the strength and focus he could muster and transported himself back to 2012.
Using the same putter with which he tormented the U.S. squad at the Ryder Cup six years ago, Poulter stood over a 19-foot birdie putt on the final hole that he had to have. It was a last-ditch effort to salvage a tournament that hours earlier he appeared destined to win, only to watch the tide turn against him as it had so many times before.
But the ghosts that have haunted the Englishman in recent close calls were nowhere to be found on the 72nd hole at the Houston Open, as he took dead aim, found his target and unleashed a chest pound that might as well be added to his Medinah highlight reel.
The closing birdie forced a playoff with Beau Hossler, one that the steely-eyed Englishman won with a par on the first extra hole to secure his first win since 2012 along with that elusive ticket to Augusta National that he thought was his a week ago.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, I’ll be honest with you,” Poulter said. “It was a good decision to come here this week, to be aggressive right from the start to try to force my way in.”
Poulter is never one to hide his emotions, and that was more than evident this week in Houston, where he originally debated even showing up. He had thought he was in the Masters with his performance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, only to be informed minutes before a quarterfinal loss to Kevin Kisner that he hadn’t yet done enough.
Still fuming from what he perceived as mis-information, Poulter played Thursday like a man who wanted to be anywhere else. When he returned to finish the final hole of his opening round the next morning, he was tied for 123rd among a 144-man field – depths from which no player has returned to win on the PGA Tour in the last 35 years. His bags were even packed in anticipation of a missed cut.
Of all people to pull off such a Herculean comeback, Poulter was probably low on the list of possibilities. Despite being richly talented and maintaining a world-class standing for years, he had won only twice on Tour and had never captured a stroke-play event in the U.S. His last win anywhere came in November 2012 in China.
But that would be exactly what he needed to make the Masters, which in turn was the only reason Poulter showed up in Houston. So facing a seemingly impossible task after being within arm’s length of Magnolia Lane a week ago, he went on an unfathomable tear.
Poulter played his final 60 holes at the Golf Club of Houston in 21 under, making just a single bogey in what he called some of the best golf of his 19-year career.
“It was hard work, and it takes a lot of mental strength to be able to do that. Disappointment kicks in at some stage,” Poulter said. “But you know what? At times you have to dig deep. When you want something bad enough, then you have to go right down to the bottom and grab hold of what you can to come back up.”
But those eye-popping stats only drew him even with Hossler, who surged down the stretch to turn a three-shot deficit with 10 holes to go into a one-shot lead heading to the final tee.
The former Texas Longhorn had his putter raised high in the air as a birdie try of his own tracked toward the hole on 18, only to creep past the right edge. Moments later, he could only watch as Poulter forced overtime.
“I did think I made that putt on the last hole, but it hung out there,” Hossler said. “Ian basically had the same putt, and there’s no way he’s going to miss it after watching my ball. I said yesterday I wanted to beat these guys at their best, and I think I saw Ian’s best today.”
Poulter’s last-minute Masters bid will get much of the attention, but he was quick to focus on the long-term ramifications. After all, it was less than a year ago that he believed he had played his way out of a Tour card following a foot injury, his status salvaged only by the same sort of clerical error that went against him last week in Austin.
With the trophy sitting next to him, Poulter’s eyes grew wide when discussing the two-year exemption this win carries as he continues to balance a busy schedule on both sides of the Atlantic.
But the allure of Augusta is undeniable. Players have used the Houston event to earn a last-minute trip to the Masters for the past 11 years, but none of their plights were quite as improbable as Poulter’s whirlwind fortnight in the Lone Star State.
After falling victim to a math error last week and writing off his own chances only three days ago, Poulter looked within and discovered exactly what he needed to snag the 87th and final spot in the Masters. This time, there will be no calculators required.
“The journey continues,” Poulter said. “I’ve had 19 good years on Tour, and I guess I’ve got another couple coming. So there’s life in the old dog yet.”