SOUTHPORT, England – With 27 Englishmen playing in the British Open, the law of big numbers would lean toward one of them being on the leaderboard.
Although the local boy, Tommy Fleetwood, might have been the most likely choice to contend at Royal Birkdale, Ian Poulter slipped into the conversation on the first day of the 146th Open.
While Fleetwood, who grew up in Southport, struggled to a 6-over 76 on Thursday morning, Poulter picked up where he left off nine years ago during the Open’s previous appearance here, when he closed with 69 to finish runner-up.
Poulter shot 3-under 67 on Thursday, tying his lowest round in a major championship in his 54th start in a Grand Slam event. He stands tied for sixth, two strokes behind Americans Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH).
“As I sat down to review the weather last night with the yardage book in hand, I kind of planned or plotted a way around this golf course to try and keep out of the fairway bunkers,” said Poulter, who began his career by giving lessons and working in the pro shop at Leighton Buzzard Golf Club, about 180 miles south of here. “A couple of holes, I may have played it a little bit too safe, but I was more committed with the putter in hand today, and I think that showed, definitely holing a few more putts than what I holed over the last few weeks.”
After missing last year’s Open because of an arthritic joint in his right foot, Poulter has had to claw his way back onto the PGA Tour and into major championships.
The first goal was accomplished when he tied for 11th at the RBC Heritage, earning enough FedEx Cup points to regain his card for 2017. He achieved his second objective by finishing second at Open Final Qualifying at Woburn, his home club in England.
Since regaining his card, Poulter, 41, has not missed a cut on the PGA or European tours. He has shown some solid form, with a T-2 at The Players Championship in May and a T-9 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open last week, despite a final-round 74.
“To know you're in a tournament and you can go out and enjoy it and be a little bit more aggressive makes a big difference,” Poulter said. “And that definitely showed at the Players, at least definitely showed over the last six weeks on the golf course. I'm definitely playing with my confidence, and hopefully I can continue that and continue to grow that confidence level.”
With three rounds remaining, and on a course that agrees with him, Poulter could emerge Sunday holding a Claret Jug with his name on it.
“I've definitely had some low spots in the last 18 months, certainly 12 months, I was getting very down,” said Poulter, who has won twice on the PGA Tour and 10 times in Europe but is winless since 2012. “It's easy to be down when you feel you're a great player and all of a sudden you're hampered with a bit of injury. You're not getting the results you want. It's very easy to slide away. So, I'm proud of the way I've been able to refocus, get things back on the straight and narrow, clear away some of the noise in the background and get back to really focusing hard on what I need to do to get the level of golf back that I think I can play.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli