Ian Poulter already can feel his heart pumping a little faster and his eyes getting a little wider, two indications that the Ryder Cup is almost here.
There’s just one difference this time.
His hands will be on the wheel of a golf cart at Hazeltine instead of on a putter.
Poulter, the European that Americans love to hate in the Ryder Cup, was having his worst and most painful season when he shut it down in late May because of an arthritic joint in his right foot that made it difficult to walk, much less practice.
It took three days for Darren Clarke to make him a vice captain.
“The role is a big one,” Poulter said Tuesday. “As a player, you’re sheltered from what goes on behind the scenes because you don’t have much time to think about what’s going on apart from playing golf. That role has changed significantly. I’m going to be experiencing something very new.”
The last time Poulter was at a Ryder Cup without golf clubs was in 1993.
He was 17 and folding shirts at Jack O’Legs Golf Center in England when Poulter and two friends scrounged up enough money to go to The Belfry. They found a house where they could pitch a tent in the backyard garden for three pounds a night. He was watching when Nick Faldo made a hole-in-one against Paul Azinger, a match that ended in a draw. He remembered thinking how cool it would be to do something like that.
And then he did.
His nickname is “The Postman” because he always delivered points — 14 times in 18 matches over five appearances for Europe. He became part of Ryder Cup lore when he made five straight birdies to win a fourballs match at Medinah in 2012 that sparked Europe’s shocking comeback.
The image of Poulter at a Ryder Cup starts with his eyes, which seem to be on the verge of popping out of their sockets.
“I should hope the weather will be such that I’ll be wearing sunglasses,” he said with a laugh.
Poulter sees his role, along with the other four assistants, as helping Clarke wherever needed later this month. Discussing team strategy. Helping with pairings. Thoughts on the golf course. More than anything, he figures he will be most useful working with the six rookies on the European team.
Clarke took Poulter to the EurAsia Cup in January, and Poulter won both team matches with partners new to the format — Danny Willet and Bernd Wiesberger. Asia didn’t have the quality of players that Europe will see at Hazeltine, but what struck Clarke was how well Poulter handled the rookies.
“While he delivered on the golf course with three wins out of three, I also saw his influence off the course, especially among the younger players who were experiencing team match play for the first time,” Clarke said. “When he spoke, everyone listened. And the same will be the case at Hazeltine.”
Poulter was being groomed for this even before his foot injury.
His form wasn’t great two years ago going into Gleneagles, and Poulter was asked to play with Scottish rookie Stephen Gallacher. They were soundly beaten by Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, and European captain Paul McGinley later said he wished he had given Poulter more time for his role.
The endless debate is how much a captain can influence the outcome at the Ryder Cup, and the assistant captains would seem to have even less of an effect. What’s intriguing about Hazeltine is that both teams will have assistants who are sure to be noticed.
One is Poulter because he has been so successful — and so annoying to so many Americans — in the Ryder Cup.
The other is Tiger Woods, because he’s Tiger Woods.
“We think people are going to be watching him watch golf,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said. “So we know this is going to be different. It’s a lot different than Davis Love being the assistant captain for Corey Pavin. I can fly under the radar. Obviously, people would recognize me. But if I’m driving in a cart, it’s not going to cause a stir. We’re going to have to do a little bit more planning for Tiger when we move him around.”
Not many will be watching Poulter watch golf.
But if they know anything about the Ryder Cup, they will recognize him. He’s the Englishman who speaks his mind and wins his matches. Poulter believes he has earned a measure of respect for his Ryder Cup success.
“Americans love someone that fights to the death, and that’s something I’ve certainly given to Team Europe through the years,” he said.
That’s what he’s trying to do now. Just without clubs. And without the attention.
Both might take some getting used to.