Ian Poulter: Why the Ryder Cup is like a drug

CNN  — 

The mad, bulging eyes, the guttural roar and the maniacal fist pump told you this was something different.

This ran way deeper than mere golf. It was his everything. That birdie putt had given his drowning European team something to cling on to. A lifeline, however flimsy.

It was Ian Poulter’s third birdie in a row on a bone-shaking Saturday afternoon at Medinah outside Chicago in 2012, and it took him and partner Rory McIlroy ahead for the first time in the match with two holes left.

Europe had been outplayed for the best part of two days and at 10-4 behind – and down in the final two matches on the course – they were facing Ryder Cup humiliation. No team had ever come from so far back in the Sunday singles.

Poulter, however, refused to wilt. It meant too much. To him, his teammates, Europe’s fans. He was desperate to somehow stay in the fight.

McIlroy, then the world’s No.1 player, could only laugh and shake his head as Poulter took the leading role and roared like a psychopath.

Even greenside needle from basketball great Michael Jordan, a long-time USA Ryder Cup cheerleader, couldn’t put Poulter off. It just gave him more energy.

He relished the rivalry, the white-hot intensity. He relished standing tall amid the maelstrom, taking the battle to the Americans in their own backyard, back in the environment of his beloved Ryder Cup.

“I crave the adrenaline rush, I crave the team atmosphere, I crave the excitement, the anticipation, the nerves, the first tee sing song, I just simply love the event,” Poulter told CNN Sport ahead of his sixth Ryder Cup appearance next week.

“I don’t take drugs, but I’m sure that’s the feeling they get. You get such a rush that week that you crave it more.”

Poulter and McIlroy fighting hard in 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah.

‘Most intense moment’

Now 42, Poulter played in his first Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in the US in 2004, but his first taste of the biennial event came as a golf-obsessed youngster, camping with his mates and attending matches at The Belfry in England. He knew he loved it, but he couldn’t have imagined what it would do for him.

On that spellbinding Saturday afternoon at Medinah, Poulter and McIlroy were locked in a momentous duel with Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. Up ahead, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald had turned around their match to beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, but Europe was still almost out on its feet.

A fourth straight Poulter birdie on the short 17 kept the flame flickering. On the final green, when everyone else had putted, it was down to the Englishman.

Twelve feet, death or glory.

“I was well aware of the gravity of the putt,” he says. “Miss it, I don’t think the team has a chance to win the Ryder Cup. Make it, we have a great chance.”

Lining up the putt, he surveyed both teams standing expectantly at the side of the green. “The emotion running through your body is adrenaline, nerves, excitement, and you have about 40 seconds to process that alongside the line and the speed,” he says.

“My 16GB processor was under immense pressure to deliver a point.”

Ian Poulter and partner Rory McIlroy embrace after winning their match in 2012.

In that time, he admits he also made up his mind to “fist pump it home.”

“I knew what this would mean, to be able to pull the energy from that and create a level of momentum to take into the singles matches,” he says.

The crowd fell silent. Poulter’s heart pounded through his pink top. The ball dropped, and he let rip. Eyes like headlights, fists pumping like jack hammers, chest puffed out. His teammates and Europe’s fans were going “bananas.”

It was, he says, his “most intense moment” in an impressive body of Ryder Cup moments.

The victory gave Europe what Poulter would later describe as a “pulse.” They trailed 10-6, but the team room was buzzing that night.

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‘Difficult and daunting’

Poulter (right) tees off as the crowd roars at Medinah in 2012.

The first tee at the Ryder Cup can be a sporting bear pit, with partisan fans packed into towering stands creating an ear-splitting, boisterous, bouncing atmosphere, with chanting, songs and one liners dancing in the air.

Away from home it becomes even more intimidating.

Poulter thrives on the energy, the spontaneity and the humor and hopes for more of the same crowd participation in the vast grandstand around the first tee at Le Golf National outside Paris.

“It’s absolutely enormous. It creates something in your body that you’ll never experience again in any normal tournament,” he says, adding that he tells his team’s rookies it’s “10 times more” than they can imagine.

“Your heart rate is going through the roof, you’re trying to breathe and your trying to act calm and not show what’s going on inside. And you’re trying to hit that little white ball down a narrow strip of fairway. It’s difficult and daunting. It’s not easy.”

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Golf in France and the 2018 Ryder Cup
22:28 - Source: CNN

‘Cardiac arrest’

That same Saturday morning in Medinah, teeing off first with Justin Rose against Americans Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, Poulter had decided to up the ante, to supercharge the rush.

The day before the colorful Watson had urged the crowd to cheer as he teed off – unprecedented in golf. “I said to Justin, ‘He’s not going to do that to us. It’s our tee.’ I thought I’d do the same thing,” he recalls.

Head nodding as the European fans chanted, Poulter gestured to raise the volume. Sensing what was happening the home supporters answered with a bass line of “USA, USA, USA.”

“If my heart rate was 160 without the noise it was 195 with the fans screaming and shouting,” he adds.

“I might have looked reasonably calm as I was pumping the crowd up but inside the body was quite the opposite. My heart was literally thumping.”

Poulter celebrates with European teammates after the "Miracle at Medinah."

Bending down to tee up his ball, he saw his hand shaking. “The top of the tee peg that might be 10mm wide all of a sudden looks like 2mm wide. It’s not a very large surface to balance the ball on. I’ve seen people struggling to get it on the tee.”

As the noise reached a crescendo, Poulter went into “autopilot” and “somehow made contact” with the ball. Watson couldn’t back down and had to his shot at full volume, too. The game was on.

“It took a lot out of me and took a lot of coming down from,” says Poulter.

“You can’t play golf for 18 holes like that. You’d have a cardiac arrest.”

‘Amazing atmosphere’

The European duo won the match, but Poulter’s heroics later that day set up what became known as the “Miracle at Medinah” as they overhauled a 10-6 deficit in Sunday’s singles to prize the Ryder Cup from the firm grip of the Americans.

His performance later earned him an “emotional” and “extremely flattering” note from captain Jose Maria Olazabal, referencing Spanish great Seve Ballesteros, his long-time Ryder Cup partner who died of cancer in 2011.

For any European, let alone a player who has worked his way up from an assistant pro in a golf club shop and has always had to fight to prove himself, it’s the highest accolade.

He may not have won a major yet, but Poulter has become Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman. His stature in the competition and form this season earned him a recall as a wildcard, after he spent the 2016 event as a vice-captain following injury.

“It makes me feel amazing,” says Poulter. “It makes me feel a sense of being wanted, and to be honest we all need that, in any walk of life.

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“I feel proud to have been asked to represent Europe again and it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere. I’m going to give it everything I’ve possibly got.”