Fighting spirit of Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter lifts him beyond expectations
Ian Poulter's exploits in the Ryder Cup did much to cement his status as one of golf’s true global superstars. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that he was a complete nobody. Not since Ian Woosnam has the European Tour produced a bigger rags-to-riches story.
Poulter might now fly around in private jets, have homes in England, Florida and the Bahamas and never have to worry about money again, but about 15 years ago his future was anything but predictable.
Nothing in the flamboyant Englishman’s background predicted near-cult status as Europe’s Ryder Cup hero. Even Poulter sometimes has trouble coming to terms with his never-have-to-worry-again lifestyle. “It is sometimes a bit surreal when I drive past the house I grew up in,” Poulter said.
Poulter grew up in Stevenage, England. He began playing golf, as many small boys do, by following his father, Terry, around Stevenage Municipal with an old cut-down 3-wood. Although he showed proficiency for the game, he didn’t have the luxury of playing elite amateur golf like peers Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood.
“I couldn’t tell you the name of the big amateur tournaments in Britain,” Poulter said. “I didn’t have the chance to play full-time amateur golf like some other kids because my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Rather than grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth, Poulter had to earn his own crust. In high school, he worked at Stevenage’s outdoor market to earn pocket money.
“He got a job selling on a stall that sold men’s fashions — T-shirts and jeans that were quite trendy,” said his mother, Theresa. “He worked on that stall from quite a young age, from about 13. He was quite young, but very good at it. So good, that when his boss went on holiday he left Ian in charge.”
That helps explain where Poulter’s fashion sense came from, although it didn’t quite pay as well as his current line, IJP Design. Poulter started at £15 ($25) for a Saturday shift and had graduated to £25 ($40) by the time he finished. It was a small fortune for the Englishman.
He decided to become an assistant golf professional because that’s the career route older brother Danny had taken. Ian started out with the vague notion of becoming a tournament professional. His handicap was 4.
Yet his first job in golf didn’t exactly promise better things to come. He made £3.20 ($5.20) an hour working at the Jack O’ Legs Golf Centre in Hitchin (now called Chesfield Downs Golf & Country Club), and worked a 50-hour week.
Poulter was so hard-up he drove a clapped-out Ford Fiesta and moonlighted as a part-time taxi driver for former European Tour pro-turned-referee Mark Litton. Poulter earned one dozen Titleist Professional 90s every time he drove Litton to the airport during the 1995 season.
“It was a big deal for me, though, because I had to pay for my own balls and couldn’t afford them," Poulter said.
The future Ryder Cup hero was allowed all the free range balls he could hit after his shift was over, but he had to pay a green fee if wanted to play the 9- or 18-hole course. He also had to take a day off work whenever he wanted to play in a tournament.
He used one of those days off to win the 1995 Panshanger Classic in Welwyn Garden City, Nick Faldo’s hometown. If Poulter thought his victory would be celebrated in his place of employment, then he was soon disappointed. “I took the trophy back to the pro shop to show it off to the members and the staff,” Poulter said. “I put it on the counter and was told to get it out of the shop. It was a kick in the ribs.”
Poulter quit and moved 30 miles west to Leighton Buzzard Golf Club. In head pro Lee Scarbrow, he found an employer willing to let him chase his dreams.
Poulter is the first to concede he isn’t the best golfer on the planet, but what he lacks in talent he more than makes up for with drive and confidence. “My brother Danny is probably a better player than me, but I just wanted it more,” he once said. “I’m a bad loser, and I don’t mind admitting it. Doesn’t matter what I’m doing; I have to win.”
Scarbrow recognized that fighting spirit in Poulter soon after he took him under his wing. “I’ve never come across anyone as competitive as Ian,” Scarbrow said. “It didn’t matter if it was golf or something else, like go-carting after work. Ian always had to win — and usually did.
“I’ve coached guys with better swings, but I’ve never come across anyone with more belief than Ian. I teach guys and I’ll hear them say ‘if’ I make it on to the European Tour. Ian never ever used the word ‘if.’ It was always ‘when’ I make it on the European Tour, ‘when’ I win tournaments, ‘when’ I play in the Ryder Cup team, ‘when’ I win majors. One thing about Ian: whatever he believes in, he gets.”
Belief took Poulter to the top of the UK’s Hippo Tour Order of Merit in 1998. It took him to the European Challenge Tour in 1999 where he won the Open de Cote d’Ivoire. More importantly, belief earned him a European Tour card at the 1999 European Tour Qualifying School. And belief has turned him into one of the game’s greatest players, and Europe’s go-to Ryder Cup guy.
“I never knew what the prize money was when I first started playing,” Poulter said. “I didn’t really care. The only thing that mattered to me was winning. I’ve always wanted to be a winner.”
He is — and one of the greatest winners in Ryder Cup history. Not many would have predicted that when he was vacuuming the Leighton Buzzard golf shop in the late 1990s.