With no one to stop them, English coming on strong
At the range at last year’s Memorial, only two caddies weren’t wearing the unflattering white shirts — a design which lies somewhere between ice cream parlor man and barber — that Jack Nicklaus insists upon.
"We’re all wearing these ridiculous things except the guy who caddies for the best player in the world and the guy who caddies for the guy who thinks he’s the best player in the world," a Tour caddie tells me.
I looked down the Muirfield Village range and, sure enough, Steve Williams wasn’t wearing his shirt and neither was Ian Poulter’s caddie.
And that’s what, until Sunday, the brash Londoner has been in the highest echelons of golf: a preening wannabe.
His celebrity as a golfer has come from the way he struts around like a peacock and brashly talks himself up — once infamously saying "I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger" — rather than any real achievement.
As Seve Ballesteros noted when Poulter wore trousers featuring the claret jug at the 2005 British Open, that would be "the closest he would ever get to (the Open trophy)."
But all of that changed when Poulter was the last man standing Sunday in the week-long cage match that is the Accenture World Match Play.
Poulter beat countryman Paul Casey, 4 and 2, in the final at the Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain course outside of Tucson. He became the first Englishman to win a World Golf Championship event and only the seventh to win on American soil in 50 years.
And he’s a critical part of golf’s English invasion: Poulter has now catapulted to fifth in the world rankings, one behind compatriot Lee Westwood and one ahead of Casey. Oliver Wilson was a quarterfinalist at the Match Play, while Ross Fisher is growing into a world-class player and Justin Rose has the talent to be better than them all.
In stark contrast, a decade ago Westwood was the only Englishman in the top 100.
"It’s been a long time coming," Poulter said of his breakthrough PGA Tour win.
"It feels just amazing, really, to be in this situation. I felt very calm and comfortable on the golf course today, very much in control."
Poulter, who’s an incessant Twitterer, is an acquired taste. He can be obnoxious and has a fiery temper.
Last year at Augusta, while he was practicing on the putting green, one of the green-coated members noticed he was listening to his iPod. Such things are verboten at the Masters, so the member dispatched a security guard to inform Poulter that the iPod needed to be put away. Poulter, who is 34, responded with two words, the first beginning with "F" and the other with "O."
It takes quite a bit of chutzpah to tell an Augusta green coat to shove it where the sun don’t shine. But what else to expect from a guy who turned pro as a teenager with a handicap of four? That’s the epitome of self-confidence.
At the last Ryder Cup, Nick Faldo made Poulter a captain’s pick. He was roundly ridiculed for choosing style over substance but Poulter responded magnificently, winning more points than any player on either side in a losing effort.
Poulter may not have the natural talent of his peers but he’s got guts and belief and that might get him over the hump at a major before the rest of the English contingent.
Westwood’s got a lot of scar tissue when it comes to the big ones. His inconsistency is maddening. It seemed with his successes last year that he’d buried all of those old demons but they resurfaced two weeks ago in Dubai. Westwood really had to try hard to lose that playoff to Miguel Angel Jimenez.
And Casey froze in the final of the Match Play for the second straight year. It seems when the pressure is on his swing gets tight and he starts missing short and right. That’s exactly what happened to Greg Norman on too many major tournament Sundays.
With Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson out of the picture, the Americans were underwhelming at the win-or-go-home tournament in the Sonoran desert. Only Stewart Cink got as far as the last eight.
And while it may be true that players like Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Ben Crane, Sean O’Hair and the veteran Steve Stricker can all win on a given week, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that sustained American dominance in golf is reliant upon Woods and Mickelson.