News & Opinion

Europe’s ‘heartbeat’ quickens Ryder pace

PARAMUS, N.J. – Did you see who tumbled out of the top eight on the European Ryder Cup side on Sunday? Englishman Ian Poulter, who was bumped by Dane Thorbjorn Olesen. Do you know who is as sure of a lock as death and taxes to be on that European side at Le Golf National outside Paris next month? 

That’s right, Ian James Poulter. 

European captain Thomas Bjorn will have some interesting decisions to make when he finalizes the team on Sept. 2 following the completion of the Euro Tour’s Made in Denmark event. For one, it could an exciting day for Danes as Olesen, who has been in some very nice form, could make his first team, competing for his countryman in Bjorn. Paul Casey is in the mix. Rafael Cabrera Bello. Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion who missed the FedEx Cup playoffs, isn't likely to make his ninth team. 

Ian Poulter, who is 12-4-2 in the Ryder Cup, puts himself in position for another shot at the Americans.

Ian Poulter, who is 12-4-2 in the Ryder Cup, puts himself in position for another shot at the Americans.

One way or another, you can bet the house that Poulter will be part of that bunch, though. Really, how can’t he be? On the verge of losing his PGA Tour card just more than a year ago, he has rebounded with the grit and guile that U.S. golf fans have seen far too often on their big-screen TVs come Ryder Cup autumns. Poulter has won only three times on the PGA Tour – his latest being the Houston Open this spring – so it’s not as if his trophy shelf is sagging from excess weight. But he is Europe’s modern-day Monty, another player who seems to step off the assembly line in Europe whose very best event is the Ryder Cup.

The Americans hadn’t had one of those in years – a truly great Ryder Cupper, that is – until Patrick Reed poked through the cracked egg shell, donned short sleeves in the steel gray chill of Scotland and began beating his chest at Gleneagles as a rookie four years ago. All he has done in two Ryder Cups is go 6-1-2 and run around with the U.S. team on his back. It’s been fun to watch. But we’ve seen that show before, mostly from that team on the other side of the Atlantic.

Poulter is 12-4-2 in Ryder Cup play, and in five singles matches, never has tasted defeat (4-0-1). Fellow Englishman Lee Westwood joked after Europe’s victory at Gleneagles in 2014 that Europe would be revising its Ryder Cup selection process. “It’s nine spots, two picks and Poults,” Westwood said. Maybe he wasn’t joking. 

Poulter, 42, said that the way he has bounced back in the past year and a half is a big source of pride for him. “It’s been an amazing run,” Poulter said off to the side during the recent PGA Championship. “When stuff is going on, it’s hard to concentrate properly, and it definitely affects your golf. So, to bypass all that … I can play with a bit of focus, play with a bit of clarity and be comfortable about my game.”

For the rest of the European side, it’s also a nice boost to believe that not only will Poulter just be part of the team, he’ll be arriving in solid form, too. That’s important. In 14 starts since the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing, Poulter has one victory (Houston), missed only one cut and finished T-12 or better seven times. He was injured two years ago and watched as a vice captain when Europe was steamrolled by the U.S. in Minneapolis. The team missed his playing presence and determination. 

“He is, and has been, the heartbeat of the team the past few years,” Rory McIlroy said. “With him not playing last time, I felt like I needed to step up a little bit and try to fill a little bit of that void that was there. But it’s great to see him playing well. The Ryder Cup brings the best out of him, and I think that golf course suits his game very well.”

The U.S. was expected to be huge favorites for the 42nd Ryder Cup, even on foreign soil, but it’s interesting how the teams are taking shape. Europe has some new, intriguing and confident global standouts breaking out in Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood. It has two strong pillars and solid leadership in McIlroy and Justin Rose. American fans will get to know a lot more about Alex Noren and Francesco Molinari, who has been as hot as anyone this summer. 

If you’re Bjorn, certainly you could use the seasoning of adding Poulter, even if it’s in a limited role. When he dons the colors of Europe, something happens to him. Poulter has been a guy to watch since going 4-1 in a losing effort at Valhalla in 2008. That was the last time he played on a losing side. 

The U.S. always will rally around Brookline ’99, when it rebounded from a 10-6 deficit on Sunday at The Country Club. And thanks to Poulter, Europe will forever have its Medinah ’12. On Saturday, the team was listless and down 10-4 before winning its final two matches of afternoon four-balls just to maintain a slim chance. It was Poulter who got them there, making five closing birdies on his own as McIlroy watched and smiled and the Euros edged Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, 1 up. 

Week to week on the PGA Tour, one might not consider Poulter to be any sort of must-watch force. He isn’t long, but he's pretty straight, and this season the return of an old putter (the one with which he blistered that closing stretch at Medinah) has provided his putting with a nice uptick. 

The Ryder Cup is a completely different scene. Somehow, the Englishman feels an incredible surge of pride and ownership there, and his will to win is extreme. He plays with the sharp edge of a guy who used to work in a pro shop in England and had to take unpaid days off to compete and chase his dream. He plays with attitude, and there’s no better event for that than the Ryder Cup. 

“Some people thrive in that environment, thrive in the head-to-head,” McIlroy said, “and Poulter has got that brash personality where he thrives in that environment.”

It’s pointless where he sits in the standings now. Ian James Poulter, we'll see you in Paris. Book it. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62