Poults’ tops memorable year for golf

THERE will be no gold medals here; no trinkets, baubles or pay cheques.

There’s not even a major championship for my golfer to contemplate as I laud him sportsperson of the year.

No, none of those for Ian Poulter. There are many others in the sporting firmament who have these past 12 months truly personified the Olympian ideal and been rewarded with gold, or whose sacrifice, talent and dedication has earned them individual glory.

Yet despite playing an individual sport, Poulter earns his place for a contribution to a team, for squeezing the best out of his talent not for personal gain but for the collective.

For leading the way by example, with endeavour, passion and spirit for the greater good, a victory for Europe against the United States at the 39th Ryder Cup.

And what a victory this year’s contest at Medinah Country Club proved, with José Maria Olazabal’s team fighting back from a seemingly impossible position at the halfway stage to win by a point and retain the trophy won two years previously on home soil.

That they did so was in no small part thanks to Poulter, whose inspirational play and eye-bulging, fist-pumping combined to deliver four points from a possible four.

On a European side where seven of his 11 team-mates possessed higher world rankings than him, and four had won the major titles that define most professional golfing careers but not his, Poulter was the shining light against hometown favourites playing in a bearpit (in golfing terms) of a backyard in the sports-mad city of Chicago.

The 36-year-old had already proven his Ryder Cup credentials, making his debut in the victory at Oakland Hills in 2004 and emerging as something of a European talisman at Valhalla in 2008 and Celtic Manor in 2010, as his team’s top scorer on both occasions to compile a formidable record of eight points from 11 matches across three appearances with a 100% record in singles.

It was Medinah, however, that became the Englishman’s finest hour to date.

Three top-10 finishes in the four majors in 2012 had earned him a wild-card pick from Olazabal alongside Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium and he promised to “pour some passion over the holes at Medinah”.

He wasted little time in not only delivering on that promise but also vindicating Olazabal’s decision as he and partner Justin Rose took down what was seen as America’s go-to pairing of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the opening foursomes to tie the Friday morning session at two wins apiece.

When Poulter re-emerged for duty on Saturday morning, having been rested for Friday’s afternoon fourballs, Europe were trailing 5-3 and in need of a pick-me-up.

Poulter went to work, reunited with compatriot Rose in an intriguing foursomes match with USA’s reigning Masters and US Open champions Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson.

Poulter had been told of Watson’s antics on the first tee the previous afternoon when the exuberant, big-hitting American had called for cheers rather than silence as he took his drive to the delight of the home crowd. The European, playing first on Saturday morning, levelled the playing field by doing the same and teed off to a roar every bit as loud as Bubba would get going next, setting the tone for a 1-up victory that would be his team’s only point of the session.

Trailing 8-4 at the start of the afternoon session, the Americans picked up on their momentum in the fourballs by winning the opening two matches to open up a 10-4 lead.

Things were looking bleak for Europe but it was then the seeds of an almighty fightback were sown, first by Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, 1-up winners over the now stricken Woods and Stricker partnership, and then, spectacularly, by Poulter and Rory McIlroy.

Or rather Poulter, who against the setting sun, appeared as a silhouette of hope, as potent as the one of Seve Ballesteros embroidered on European sleeves and bags, sinking five birdies, none of them ‘gimme’s, in the closing five holes to deliver victory over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson and give Europe a fighting chance for Sunday’s singles at 10-6 down.

Of course, Poulter played a part in that remarkable final day, maintaining his 100% singles record with a dramatic victory over Simpson as Europe, instilled with belief by Olazabal’s invocation of his old pal Seve’s memory, rallied to 14.5-13.5 win over the US that ranks as one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

“He was the catalyst for this whole thing,” McIlroy said of his fourballs partner. “He was incredible.”

Lee Westwood said following the Miracle at Medinah: “We have actually revised the qualification for next time. It’s nine automatic spots, two picks and Poults.”

And who would argue against that?

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