Ian Poulter, the Ryder Cup and the Strange Appeal of PGA Tour Oddballs

 

By Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick is a golf fanatic and golf commentator who begrudgingly came to respect Ian Poulter after his amazing performance at this year’s Ryder Cup.  Scott’s writing appears courtesy of Golf Now Phoenix and Golf Now San Diego.  For more of McCormick’s commentary, see his recent post on the history of golf fashion.

Wearing a traditional V-neck sweater over a white polo shirt, with navy blue trousers that matched his sweater, and accented on top with an unpretentious white visor, Great Britain’s Ian Poulter could have been confused for any other 21st century golfer.

He wasn’t – of course – just any golfer as he strolled the course at the Medinah Country Club on a late September Sunday afternoon during the final round of the 2012 Ryder Cup.  Though his outfit may have made him look like John Q. Duffer, there were at least three things that set him apart:

1)      He had ice water coursing through his veins

2)      His face bore the intensity of a gladiator

3)      He may have been in the most unpopular man in the Chicago metro area

Poulter’s performance the day before had swung the momentum away from the host United States team, as he overcame the cacophony of catcalls from the raucous home crowd to record five consecutive birdies and give his European teammates an opportunity to complete their historic comeback against the Americans.

Poulter’s temperament is apparently perfect for match play competition, and he’s been elevating the level of his performance for the Ryder Cup since 2004, when he clinched the tournament for Team Europe.

And though his garb – which is often ostentatious – didn’t grab any particular attention that day, he was still able to defy a century of golf tradition with his antics – goading the hostile crowd into unleashing even more contempt towards him.

The crowd’s venom fueled Poulter’s performance as much as it astonished traditionalists, and because he was able to back up his bark with plenty of bite, the Ryder Cup 2012 will be forever etched in golf lore with Poulter as the centerpiece figure.

As far as centerpieces go, Poulter has always been a bizarre bouquet of clashing colors – both in substance and style.  And watching him in action at the 2012 Ryder Cup, it occurred to me that Poulter could be seen as a microcosm of the mythic contradictions that lie at the heart of golf’s history.

To wit:

  • Golf is an old-fashioned institution, administered by staunch traditionalists allergic to even the hint of change or nonconformity.
  • Yet it has always been a sport populated by eccentric individualists whose personalities cannot be contained by the stuffy policies of the golfing establishment.

Perhaps nowhere is this tug-of-war more evident than in the realm of golf fashion.

As a “thread man”, Poulter continues a long-standing golf tradition of eschewing golf tradition – and this is manifested in a couple of different forms, from dapper (an all-black homage to Gary Player) to flamboyant (his hideous Union Jack trousers).

A master of self-promotion, Poulter was good at garnering attention for himself even before his game was doing the talking for him.  And he still hasn’t won a major tournament, but his pink outfits, spikey hair and penchant for trash talk have ensured he’s in the spotlight plenty.  He’s shocked establishment observers with wacky tactics, like the times he has flipped his middle finger towards golf balls that failed to drop into the hole when he expected them to.

But now, with his performance at this year’s Ryder Cup, his legacy as an accomplished golfer is probably secure regardless of whether he ever wears a green jacket or hoists the Claret Jug.

He’s got the rebellious personality that either endears him to you, or conversely makes you loathe him with the fire and intensity of a 1000 burning suns.  If he’s “your guy” you love him.  If he’s not, well…

Either, way these types of characters are good for the sport, and he makes for a refreshing contrast to the many bland and largely indistinguishable automatons that populate the PGA tour.

For Americans, watching Poulter spit fire while putting his European teammates on his proverbial back in the Ryder Cup, a stark contrast to our stereotypical understanding of British golfers was notably observed.  It’s hard to imagine Ian Poulter taking a spot of tea while munching on finger sandwiches between rounds, as is unjustifiably the expectation that many “ugly Americans” have for England’s top golfers.

No, regardless of which side of the pond you hail from, nonconformist golfers like Ian Poulter are endlessly entertaining and a tremendous boon to the sport that has for too long allowed their fun and fascinating players to be overshadowed by the stiff and stodgy rules and regulations that are driven into the ground by the so-called golf traditionalists.

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