Iain Carter column: 'When the stakes are highest, Ian Poulter usually delivers'

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Ian Poulter
Ian Poulter, who has been as high as fifth in the world rankings, is ranked 190th

A week on from Sergio Garcia's Augusta glory, there was a different set of emotions as one of his popular contemporaries tried to keep his playing rights on the PGA Tour.

To his immense frustration, Ian Poulter came up one stroke short at the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town. Now he needs a likely top-30 finish at this week's Texas Open to bank the remaining $30,624 (about £24,500) required to maintain his card.

"I don't care. Life's good," the Englishman tried to tell us during last week's event, where he finished in a share of 11th having been at the top of the leaderboard after 45 holes.

Indeed, Poulter tried his very best to deflect all attention away from the pressing matter that currently dominates his career.

Time and again he was asked about the money he needs to win by the end of this week, when his medical exemption expires. He is playing catch-up after taking time off last year with a foot problem.

We can guess the soreness he felt through the injury is nothing compared with the pain in the neck of his current plight.

Every question last week was met with a similar response. "I'm not thinking about it," he said.

The nearest the 41-year-old came to buckling came when he admitted: "I'm trying not to think about it. Obviously you keep asking the questions, so it's right there."

There is certainly no escaping the issue this week.

Ian Poulter
The Englishman's best finish at a major was his second place at the 2008 Open Championship

A player of Poulter's stature, even with about $50m (£40m) in career earnings, does not want to be reliant on sponsors' invites for spots on the PGA Tour.

Last Sunday's share of 11th was his first top-40 finish since coming 15th at the Dubai Desert Classic in February. He languishes at 190th in the world rankings.

Even with European Tour playing privileges intact, he needs to be involved in the bigger tournaments to compete for heavier ranking points to climb back up the golfing ladder.

This is the only way to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous and prosperous circle.

Having recently closed his golf clothing business, Poulter claims he is in a better frame of mind to concentrate on his golf. "My mindset is a little bit different," he said.

"And I had to clear up some of the mess that's going on in and around the head over the last 10 or 12 months.

"So we cleared that out last week. And I'm freer on the golf course, and being more aggressive. I feel like I'm going at more pins, and when I do that I can shoot decent scores."

This is what he needs to do this week in San Antonio, a course he has not played since finishing an undistinguished 37th there in 2013.

Poulter knows he will have to maintain his aggressive attitude to gain the finish he requires. Like last week, he will aim for victory in the knowledge that would take care of everything.

The Ryder Cup hero does not do things by half measures. Playing only for the requisite finishing position is not in his mindset.

Ian Poulter
Poulter's five straight birdies in Saturday's fourballs sparked Europe's 'Miracle at Medinah' at the 2012 Ryder Cup

Nevertheless, his birdie attempts on the closing two greens on Sunday - either of which would have secured his card had they dropped - uncharacteristically failed to threaten the hole.

When it was most needed, his putter - so reliable in his pomp - let him down badly. How often have we said that of golfers past their 40th birthday?

While he was going through these agonies, he had a constant reminder of just how deep the talent pool is on the PGA Tour. Poulter was marking the card of eventual champion Wesley Bryan.

The 27-year-old American rookie is a former trick-shot artist (well worth looking up) and a seasoned survivor of challenge tours and qualifying schools. He is part of the endless supply of talent that pours into the world's top tours.

Poulter is of a generation under increasing pressure to maintain their relevance in a modern game that feels younger by the moment.

Yet golf is a sport that can still crown 37-year-old first-time major winners such as Garcia at the Masters.

The Spaniard's success can only serve as an inspiration for the likes of Poulter and another Ryder Cup team-mate, Luke Donald, who was second, for the fifth time, at the Heritage tournament.

Poulter, a 12-time winner on the European Tour, has always been pretty self-sufficient when it comes to motivating himself. The desire will undoubtedly be there in Texas this week, he just needs it to deliver the requisite form.

When the stakes are at their highest, as all European Ryder Cup fans know, he usually delivers. This week should show whether he still has what it takes.


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