News & Opinion

Poulter takes ‘massive step’ in comeback

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – By now, Ian Poulter has become a fast master of the art of career reassessment. For those who have enjoyed his spontaneous ad libs on Twitter, those represent merely a fun diversion by comparison.

First, he was left for dead by the roadside when it appeared as if he had lost his PGA Tour card last month for failing to amass enough FedEx Cup points during a major medical extension. Arthritis in his right foot in late 2016 had led to rigor mortis in his game in 2017.

The flashy Englishman already was mulling a letter-writing campaign to tournament directors to seek exemptions over the rest of this season, and guessing which mid-tier events were most likely to accept players who finished outside the top 125 in points, such as John Deere and Memphis. Hard as it is to imagine for some, the entertaining Poulter had been humbled.

Given the back story, then, the rewrite last week at TPC Sawgrass must have seemed like a mirage. While Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee took him apart for not playing the back nine of The Players Championship as though his hair were on fire, Poulter took several deep breaths after his co-runner-up finish on Sunday night as the relief poured from every subatomic particle of his 41-year-old body.

Firmly embedded with his family of six – all four children younger than 16 – in Orlando, Poulter found that 1½ years of lean results left his playing status in the States dwindle from elite World Golf Championships to the so-called opposite events, where the hoi polloi play.

Even a spectacularly memorable cold shank on the 72nd hole couldn’t take the smile from his face. Most would need a TrackMan device to calculate his quick trajectory change.

“It’s been miserable. It’s been really hard,” the two-time PGA Tour winner said Sunday night, shaking his head. “We’re slowly getting there.”

Only two weeks ago, “there” looked like the land of the lost. Playing on a major medical extension that allowed a finite number of starts this season in which he needed to match last year’s top-125 FedEx points total, Poulter missed retaining his card at Hilton Head by a shot, then missed the cut in Texas the next week, seemingly hitting rock bottom.

Fellow pro Brian Gay, who also missed time for medical reasons, discovered that because the 2017 points were being compiled by a different measure than last year, both players actually had met the standard to keep their playing privileges. Poulter found out that his status had been rejiggered two weeks ago in New Orleans, and that he also had earned a spot in the Players field, to boot.

As those old Garmin devices would intone: Recalculating.

Poulter took the last-minute pass into the Sawgrass field and utterly resuscitated his career. He had entered the week at No. 197 in the world, but climbed to 80th on Monday thanks to the runner-up finish against one of the best fields in golf.

The career funeral dirge would have to wait. One of the most popular and polarizing players of the past decade lived to breathe another day. The re-animated Poulter was happy to have attracted attention for all of the right reasons.

“I had to dig deep,” he said. “It’s been a miserable 18 months. I was swimming at the bottom of an empty pool for a while. It’s a massive week for me to take pressure off the rest of the year. It’s a massive step.”

Poulter said that his putter, typically the best part of his game, has been misfiring for most of the past two years, but that hardly was the case at Sawgrass. Other than the hosel rocket on the 72nd hole, he hit the ball as well from tee to green as he had in months, too.

“Maybe, ever,” said Poulter, who played 39 holes without a bogey in one stellar stretch. “This is the first clean week I’ve had in 18 months.”

With his future not only assured but brightened considerably, Poulter said he would spend time this week trying to draw up his schedule over the next few months, which might even include a return to the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, set for next week. By now, he probably knows that he should scribble his travel plans in pencil.

Indeed, if he moves up another 20 spots, to 60th in the world, over the next month, he’ll be exempt into the U.S. Open, surely a pipe dream just days ago.

In essence, one of the game’s most interesting needle-movers gets to pick and choose, not plead and beg, with regard to where he plays. After months of having a hangdog look on his famous face, the Cockney Cockatiel is back in full plumage.

“I can now play a very long schedule,” he said, smiling as he realized his itinerary had changed yet again, “and know exactly where I’m playing.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling