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Poulter a master of mind over matter

ESPN staff
May 24, 2011
Ian Poulter seems to use controversy as fuel © Getty Images
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Hat tip of the week goes to Ian Poulter, and well it might.

The Englishman has often been accused of making more headlines for his controversial comments than his professional performances - but when he does make waves with the latter, it is usually inthe matchplay format.

Poulter became the first person to win both the (relatively new) WGC World Match Play and (plain-old) World Match Play on Sunday, seeing off Luke Donald in the final around Finca Cortesin to claim another notable victory.

When coupled with his regular triumphs on Sunday at Ryder Cups, Poulter has firmly established himself as one of his generation's premier head-to-head golfers.

"I don't know what it is about matchplay," Poulter said in the aftermath of his lucrative triumph. "I've tried to work it out before and I haven't been able to.

"I just love it - I think I get more adrenaline and more up for it. I need to change that into strokeplay."

It's a sentiment he has expressed before. Indeed, that was exactly the motivational message he posted to his Twitter followers (all 1.2 million of them) prior to the Masters earlier this year … a move that resulted in an unspectacular T-27th finish.

That's almost Poulter's career in a nutshell - sometimes his self-created storms sweep him to an amazing success, and sometimes they leave him with nothing but a verbal battering for ever being so boisterous.

Nevertheless, he is a man who is made his career on self-belief and continually raising the stakes for himself.

Whether deliberately or not, he constantly seems to need to put pressure on himself on order to find his best form.

His dress sense for one - offering as it has done a freshly pressed batch of criticism for any journalist who wants to dismissively compare his sartorial brashness with a lack of results to back it up.

Nearly ten years down the line from when he first introduced his distinctive look - all visors and plaid trousers, with rhinestones occasionally sprinkled in - golfing fashion has now clearly passed Poulter by. Many golfers now dress much better than he, certainly with more elegance, but he shows no signs of changing his approach - partly because he has his own clothing line to think about, but partly perhaps because he realises it helps create the mental edge he needs.

The same can be said of his comments to the media. You would have thought he might have learned by now not to mention Tiger Woods - after suggesting, infamously, that eventually it would be "just me and him" at the top of the world rankings - yet at Augusta National earlier this year he was happy to create another media storm by suggesting, reasonably but nevertheless naively, that Woods would not finish in the top five.

At Ryder Cups, he has taken to guaranteeing a point from his singles on Sunday. When he did that last year at Celtic Manor, he demolished Matt Kuchar (one of the more in-form US players) by a staggering 5&4 scoreline.

Poulter simply seems to need controversy or adversity in order to bring out the best in him. For whatever reason - perhaps the greater focusing of the mind - matchplay is an arena that better suits him in that regard.

After all, when winning wasn't imperative, he could only halve with both Francesco Molinari and Paul Lawrie last week in Spain. But once into the knockout rounds, he turned it on emphatically. To beat the world No. 1 on paper (Lee Westwood) and on form (Luke Donald) is no mean feat.

"If you are going to hole putts you're going to be hard to play against," he said. "I mean I might not swing it the best in the world and I probably wasn't given as much talent as some other people, but it doesn't have to be picture perfect.

"You just have to get the job done. That's what counts."

Back when Ian Poulter was emerging as a European Tour force, he was somewhat overshadowed by a similar player by the name of Ian Garbutt. Garbutt, after a career that quickly faded, is now an agent for some of the tour's players.

Poulter, meanwhile, is a multi-millionaire with numerous great titles to his name - all achieved from the humblest of beginnings. He's been powered there by his self-belief and a unrivalled conviction that there is no logical reason why anyone should beat him on any given day.

The majority of club professionals across the country probably left behind their amateur status with lower handicaps (four) than Poulter did when he moved into the paid ranks. But few people in the game have ever been blessed with a mental attitude and utter conviction to match his.

Only one immediately springs to mind - Tiger Woods.

Poulter, unlike Woods, may never win a major. Even he would admit that his performances in those events have only fleetingly ever deserved such reward.

But to criticise him for that would miss the wider meaning of his career entirely.

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