With a 14-6-2 record in the Ryder Cup - including a 5-0-1 mark in singles - Ian Poulter is one of the best players in the long and storied history of the biennial competition.
To wit, should he win his singles match on Sunday, he’ll move further into rarefied air. Only Colin Montgomerie and Tom Kite have played at least seven singles matches and not lost any of them, going 6-0-2 and 5-0-2, respectively.
But what makes the Englishman, who has just three wins on the PGA Tour and has rarely so much as sniffed contention in a major championship, one of the game’s greatest match play performers on arguably the most pressure-filled stage in golf?
“I hate losing,” Poulter said Wednesday at Whistling Straits, where he is a captain’s pick for the second straight time. “When you play match play, you know what you have to do when you tee up on the first hole. You can control a match. You can dictate a match. You can play certain shots to try and put your opponent under pressure. You can't do that in stroke play really unless it comes down to the back nine and the group you're in you're actually clear of the rest of the field.
“It's just a fun game of chess, to be honest, to enjoy what that means, that you're under pressure right from the get-go. It just doesn't happen in stroke play. It's kind of like you plod your way into the tournament, but it's back nine Sunday mentality every single time you tee it up.”
Still, that only scratches the surface. There are myriad elements, ranging from the technical to the less tangible, or rather psychological, that explain why the 45-year-old Brit has been a central figure and is likely to be again this year (though it should be noted he is a pedestrian 2-3-2 in his last two showings).
Let us begin with his style of play.
Not long off the tee and not a great ball-striker, those elements are somewhat minimised when it comes to a team competition. Perhaps the most difficult part of any match instead comes as the ball gets closer to the hole. Unless, that is, one possesses the sort of gifted short game that Poulter does. When it comes to getting up and down or rolling it well, few are better. Miss a green? So what, chip it in. Crucial putt? Make it.
Is there anything more demoralising to an opponent than watching that?
Which brings us to the next point that Poulter is the ultimate role player.
His game can fit with almost anyone's. Though he has most often teamed with Justin Rose (five times), his partners have also included Darren Clarke, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, among others.
Then there is Poulter’s background and personality.
A relatively modest upbringing and with little expectation he’d play high-level professional golf, much less reach the upper echelon of the sport, were all the ingredients needed for a chip on his shoulder the size of Wisconsin. Golfers, by nature, also like to show off. Few are more comfortable in the role of preening peacock than Poulter.
“The brain functions differently in different environments,” says sport psychologist Gio Valiente, whose client list has included a number of tour players, including Justin Rose. “It’s in constant interaction with the environment around it, which is why mood lighting works, or we get tired on cloudy days, or why Las Vegas casinos have no clocks or windows. It’s a real thing. And it’s a really important thing for golfers. In a regular golf tournament, they’re playing against the field and the course. That’s a mindset. The mindset for the Ryder Cup is different.”
One of the other things that’s also different about the Ryder Cup is of course playing for something greater than oneself.
“Ian isn’t just English, he’s very English,” Valiente said. “What that does is invoke in him a level of fight and confidence that regular events don’t. There’s a difference playing for money and playing for a value system and belief system, things that are infused in someone’s DNA. Therein lies the difference. He stops playing with his head and starts playing with his heart and gut.”
It's no wonder then that Poulter was the spark that brought Europe back from a 10-5 deficit in 2012 at Medinah, where he led the team in points and went 4-0-0 for the week.
But while all of the aforementioned traits have led to a remarkable individual record for Poulter in his half-dozen previous Ryder Cup appearances they are not necessarily a guarantee of team success. In 2008 at Valhalla, Poulter also tallied four points for the Europeans, his only loss a 1-up defeat with Justin Rose to Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell in the opening foursomes session.
Eight of his 11 teammates, conversely, contributed just one point or less for the week and the US won easily.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?