AT THE start of 2008 Paul Casey was 21st in the world, Ian Poulter 22nd and Lee Westwood 23rd – and a lot of people scoffed and laughed when Poulter said he had the game to get to number two.
Now Westwood is fourth, Poulter fifth and Casey sixth and nobody thinks it is beyond any of them to become Tiger Woods’ closest challenger on the rankings – or even take over at the top from Woods if his indefinite break from golf lasts a few more months.
Poulter is the man of the moment – on the course at least – after achieving the first US Tour victory of his career with a 3&2 victory over Casey in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Arizona on Sunday.
“It’s just another goal achieved and hopefully we can now set our goals a little higher to kick on for the rest of the year,” said the 34-year-old, who will decide today whether to play this week’s Phoenix Open or take a well-earned rest.
“I’m not sure if number one is up for grabs. For a while, until Tiger comes back, obviously he’s going to be dropping points, so guys will be getting closer and closer.”
There is another world championship in Miami in two weeks and then, of course, comes The Masters in early April.
“An Englishman hasn’t won a major for a long time,” added Poulter. The last was Nick Faldo at Augusta in 1996.
“It’s about time the guys that have put themselves in positions four, five and six in the world, I guess, should step up to the plate and hopefully deliver on that.”
The second half of 2008 is when Poulter really started to look a special talent. First came his runner-up finish to Padraig Harrington at the British Open and then, under huge scrutiny at the Ryder Cup after being given a wild card by Faldo when Darren Clarke was the popular choice, he responded by top-scoring in the match with four points out five.
“I don’t feel as if I’m under immense pressure (any more) and I’m able to concentrate on the shots I need to play,” he added. “Playing against Paul I’ve never felt more comfortable on a golf course. And my short game has been as good as it’s ever been. The last 12 months it’s been up there with the best of them.”
The words that haunted Poulter for a while two years ago and prompted Woods to call him “number two” came in a magazine interview.
“The trouble is I don’t rate anyone else,” it quoted him as saying. “Don’t get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens it will be just me and Tiger.”
Poulter, who claimed the comments were taken out of context, still remembers the reaction it caused – and so does Casey.
“I think everybody chuckled slightly,” said Casey, who has now finished runner-up in the last two Match Plays.
“But I know how hard he works and how much he cares about it. So deep down I think a lot of people – I for one – thought, you know, it’s not that much of an outrageous comment. The way he played against me was very impressive.
“Ian will tell you exactly what he’s thinking, which always makes me smile. But if Ian believes that, and he does, then there’s no reason why he couldn’t get to that spot.
“For me it’s not about talent, it’s about work ethic and belief and all the rest of it, all the other attributes that go into being a great golfer – and he’s worked incredibly hard.”
That hard work has made Poulter a near-certainty for a third Ryder Cup cap in Wales this October.
Westwood has surely locked up his place already as well and captain Colin Montgomerie will want Paul Casey there as well after his performance in Tucson.
It proved he is back as a force after tearing a rib muscle last summer just when he had climbed to third in the world.
“There are a lot of positives to come out of this week,” stated Casey. “A lot of good things happened after finishing second here last year (a maiden US Tour win in Houston, then the BMW PGA title at Wentworth), so hopefully a lot of good things can happen after finishing second again – especially if I play a full season, which would be nice.”
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