Ian Poulter talks exclusively to Richard Bevan, as he sets out on his third decade as a European Tour player, in a far-reaching interview which looks back on a career that has seen him become a Ryder Cup icon with all the trappings that success brings, but one that started from humble beginnings.
Despite embarking on his 21st season on the European Tour this year, Ian Poulter insists the competitive juices flow as strongly as they ever did. He missed the cut in his first outing of the year in Abu Dhabi and followed up with a solid – if not spectacular – tied 16th place finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic but the famously cocksure Englishman, who has installed a fully equipped golf studio in his Orlando home, believes he’s playing golf as good as at any time in his career.
“I woke up super early on the first day of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship week, there was a bit of jetlag in there, but I was keen and raring to go,” Poulter tells me when we catch up at the Peter Cowen Academy at Jumeirah Golf Estates, where he was giving a clinic to children from the Dubai Heights Academy as part of his role as a DP World Ambassador. “When the time comes where that’s not the case, then things might be a little bit different.
“I look at where I am and I’m playing some of the best golf I think I’ve ever played from a numbers perspective. My game is generally super consistent and because of that I’m encouraged and enjoying tournaments and looking forward to the ones I have coming up this year.”
With a huge year ahead that includes the Olympics in Japan and The Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Poulter knows that he needs some strong performances in the early part of the season to ensure that he is comfortably within the top 50 in the World Ranking and eligible to play all the World Golf Championships and Majors.
“I need to improve my World Golf Ranking, I’m close to the 50 mark (47th at the time of going to print), and I don’t like being near that number,” he says. “I need to improve, so there is a lot of hard work going on, not just on the practice ground, but everywhere else to make sure my ranking improves and keeps moving in the right direction. If I can do that, well, I’m going to be in a good position to get into all the tournaments I need to be in, get myself in contention and win again.”
Poulter, who turned 44 last month, is without a worldwide victory since his triumph in the Houston Open in 2018 but he revealed that witnessing his old pal, 46 year old Lee Westwood, win in such an assured manner at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship showed that the European Tour ‘veterans’ can still keep the ever-increasing army of talented young guns at bay from time to time.
“There are always times in your career where there are ebbs and flows, when the game feels easy and there are ebbs and flows when the game does not feel so easy,” he says. “There are certain things which happen on and off the golf course that become challenging, which means the game becomes less enjoyable.
“Lee has worked hard on the enjoyment side – the game of golf fundamentally gets a bit easier when you are out there enjoying yourself playing golf – the game that we grew up loving and ended up doing for a job. It’s a pretty office and a great environment in which to have a job.
“Sometimes you forget about that aspect of enjoying the game and it’s something that you need to be reminded of – to go out there and have fun, take pleasure from this great game and keep delivering upon your goals and targets.
“I’ve obviously taken big inspiration from Lee’s win in Abu Dhabi. It was a big thing and it showed that the 40-plus year old players have still got it, so for me it’s a big push this year. I want to enjoy my golf, get into the Ryder Cup team and have fun in the process.”
NO MAJOR HANG UP
Like Westwood, Poulter has long carried the old clichéd tag of being ‘one of the best players never to have won a Major’. Tiger Woods, also 44, showed at Augusta last year that age need not be a barrier to success in golf’s Grand Slam events, but the 12-time European Tour winner insists that he feels no pressure to win one in order to define his career.
“I’ve said to a number of people, I don’t feel like I have to win a Major,” says Poulter, who has finished in the top 10 in seven Majors, with his best result a runner-up spot at the 2008 Open Championship. “I would love to win one but that’s two very different things. To have played in as many Majors as I’ve played, obviously I know they’re very difficult to win. I’ve been close a number of times and I’ve been in contention in a few, so if one comes along hopefully I can grab it with both hands, and I’m at the point in my career where I can still improve and challenge in some of these big tournaments so let’s see what happens.”
He’s known nowadays for his love of the ‘bling’. Fancy clothes, big houses, numerous fast cars – Poulter has all the trappings of a successful global Tour golfer. But he’s never forgotten the modest upbringing he had growing up in Stevenage in England where he paid his own way, working on a market stall to earn some extra cash and then in assistant pro positions at Chesfield Downs Golf Club, where he also ran the golf shop, and Leighton Buzzard Golf Club.
“When I was growing up I played a lot of football and was interested in sports in general – it was all about team environment and being able to be as good as I possibly could,” he says. “I transitioned out of football into golf full time from the age of 15 and it was about that time where I felt that I needed to earn some money, so I left school and went into full time employment. Prior to that I was working a couple of days a week on the market stall because I didn’t want to ask my parents for money as they weren’t in a position to be able to pay for some of the things that I wanted.
“I needed various things – a bike to get to school then later a car, all those good things.
From an early age, I felt the sense that working was the best way to get the things I wanted. I did that in the pro shop and those years were fantastic. I spent from the age of 15 to 23 working in full time employment from being an assistant professional to winning the first professional event I have ever played in at the age of 19 and beyond.
“The transition from being an okay golfer at 15 to working really hard on my game, before and after working hours, was a lot of fun and I got inspiration watching golf – the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Payne Stewart and all those legends, and it is a great game to get involved in at an early age. There is so much enjoyment from playing this sport and I’ve made a great career from it and been very fortunate.”
Poulter’s chest-thumping heroics, particularly in The Ryder Cup, as well as his ‘eye catching’ line of on-course fashion and hairstyles, speaks to a man who is not exactly what you’d call shy. He once caused controversy when he said, “I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger,” although he later revealed that the comments had been taken out of context. But self-belief is clearly an integral part of the Ian Poulter make up.
“I think that confidence is a huge part of anyone’s ability to succeed, whether that be business or sport in any aspect of their life,” he says. “If you’re not confident about the path you’re on or the path you’re going to take you might struggle, so it’s about having key focus on where you’re going to go, what you’re going to do and your ability.
“I think having that pulled me through tough times on multiple occasions. When I’ve not found things so easy I rely on the confidence to kick in at a certain time to pull me through.
“Everybody needs to be clear in their mindset and their ability and they need to be able to focus on doing a good job and realise that anything is possible. Nobody has got any more right than you have to do a certain job, a role or a sport. If you apply your mind and your work ethic you can do anything.”
Poulter, like Brooks Koepka, had the opportunity to spend some time with Dubai’s very own rising star, 15 year old Josh Hill, in Abu Dhabi, where the youngster was making his first European Tour start after winning the Abu Dhabi Amateur last December. And, like the World No.1, he was impressed with what he saw.
“I first got introduced to Josh on social media seeing that he’d won a MENA Tour event where he shot 62 in the last round at the age of 15 – which is incredible!” says Poulter, a DP World Ambassador. “I have a 15 year old son and he’s not shooting 62, so I know how big of a task that was, and to be able to do that and win such a tournament is very special. I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with him to get to know his mindset and give him a couple of tips, albeit I didn’t see him hit many balls but based on the stuff I have seen on social media, he is very good at an early age. He’s a bright prospect for the future and it’s very encouraging to see.”
Poulter may be at a very different stage in his career to Josh Hill but he speaks with the enthusiasm and passion of a teenager still very much in love with the game of golf.
Poulter on Dubai’s ever-changing landscape…
I think back to 1999 when I first came to Dubai, there was just the Hard Rock Cafe on Sheikh Zayed Road and there wasn’t much else between that and the airport an then in a small little window of time you now see so many great golf courses and hotels we have got in the area, they’ve done a remarkable job. It’s a great tourist destination that enjoys great food, great hotels and beaches. What’s not to love about coming here to play golf and have a good time with the family?
Poulter on DP World…
When you look at how DP World has changed the game of golf for the European Tour, to have a season-ending event here in Dubai is special for us. The DP World vision for us to be able to play golf and finish the season in Dubai is brilliant. It was a privilege to give a golf clinic to the kids in Dubai, to get them excited about the sport. It made me look back to my pro shop years teaching juniors on Saturdays and Sundays and how much fun I had back then. There were very different ages, boys and girls and they were all loving golf. I grew up enjoying golf for what it was and it turned out to be a job, but having inclusivity in golf today is special, we just want to grow the game and we want to make it for everybody.