AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — No matter where Ian Poulter turns, there’s someone with congratulatory words and an outstretched hand.
Certainly, no one took a more harrowing path to the Masters.
The 42-year-old Englishman was the last player to qualify for the first major of the year, winning last weekend’s Houston Open in a playoff after sinking a 20-foot birdie on the 72nd hole.
“Nice putt,” someone said as Poulter lingered under the mammoth oak tree in front of the clubhouse at Augusta National.
He responded with a sly wink and a smile that signaled more relief than joy.
“To do it the way I did it, after all the disappointments, all the highs and lows, it’s really nice,” Poulter said on the eve of the Masters.
When the tournament begins Thursday, there will be no shortage of compelling storylines.
Tiger Woods is playing for the first time since 2015, healthy again and looking very much ready to contend for a fifth green jacket. Phil Mickelson is coming off a World Golf Championship victory and trying to become the oldest Masters champion at age 47. Rory McIlroy is looking to complete the career Grand Slam. Sergio Garcia is the defending champion. Dustin Johnson is the world’s top-ranked player. Justin Thomas has seven wins since the beginning of 2017. Jordan Spieth already has three major titles, including the 2015 Masters.
But Poulter, who’s known mostly for his Ryder Cup heroics and outrageous fashion sense, hopes to ride the wave of his Houston triumph right on through the Masters.
“There’s always a little downer when you win like that. I’m sure it will happen at some stage,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen until about 7 o’clock Sunday evening, just after I slip on the green jacket.”
Poulter thought he had qualified for the Masters two weeks ago when he reached the quarterfinals of the Match Play championship in Austin. But there was an error in the projected world rankings, which meant he needed to win one more match to lock up his spot in the elite Augusta field. He didn’t even come close, getting blown out 8 and 6 by Kevin Kisner.
Poulter was so disappointed by that turn of events he considered skipping the last tournament before the Masters. It certainly appeared his trip to Houston was a waste of time when he opened with a 73 while nearly half the field was shooting in the 60s, leaving him nine strokes off the lead.
He made only one bogey the rest of the weekend, playing the last 54 holes at 20-under par for his first victory in six years.
“It wasn’t flawless,” Poulter said, “but it might’ve been as close to that as I’ve ever been. One bogey in three rounds? That’s pretty good.”
Poulter skipped the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday, deciding he needed a bit more time to decompress. He still hasn’t gotten through all the messages he received after his dramatic victory, a task he’ll get back to once he gets home from Augusta.
“It’s been busy,” he said. “But it’s been great.”
Poulter pushed his way into one of the most anticipated Masters in years, with much of the attention focused on Woods’ return to form after years of debilitating health issues.
Sure, the last of his 14 major titles came nearly a decade ago at the U.S. Open, and it’s been 13 years since he captured a green jacket. But the 42-year-old Woods was established as one of the Augusta favorites after finishing just one stroke behind Paul Casey at the Valspar Championship, followed by another strong showing at Bay Hill.
“It’s been a tough road,” Woods said. “The amount of times that I’ve fallen because my leg didn’t work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of time. Those were some really dark, dark times.”
“I don’t know anyone who has had lower back fusion (surgery) can swing the club as fast as I can swing it,” Woods said. “I went from being a person that really had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, anything, to now swinging the club. …That is a miracle, isn’t it?”
While he knows the future of the game belongs to 20-somethings such as Spieth, Thomas and McIlroy, Woods is confident he and Mickelson can still compete with the kids for at least a few more years. Lefty picked up his first victory since the 2013 British Open in Mexico last month, beating Thomas in a playoff.
Woods and Mickelson even played a practice round together in Augusta, a sign that their once-prickly relationship has softened considerably.
“We’re at the tail end of our careers. We both know that,” Woods said. “We have had a great 20-year battle. Hopefully we’ll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who was going to be No. 1. That was then, and certainly this is now.”
Now seems pretty good, too.
– PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer