Perhaps it is easier now for Ian Poulter to speak freely about what, for a spell, was the very real possibility that he might have missed the Open Championship’s return to Royal Birkdale. Or maybe his candid admission merely sums up his nature.
“How would it feel to watch this one on TV? Pretty shit,” the 41-year-old says. “Whatever happens this week, wherever I finish, it would have been horrible to sit there and watch on TV. I would have been miserable because I’d have been looking back at what happened nine years ago, thinking I wanted another go at it.”
In displaying an admirable lack of ego and also the work ethic that has epitomised his career, Poulter secured his Open position via final qualifying. “I absolutely needed to be there because I hadn’t played the golf to be here on merit,” he says. “I had no problems at all stepping down a level, to muck in and get my hands dirty. Nobody is going to give you anything, are they? Nobody is going to hand you an invite for the Open.”
As we sit in a rental home, a short walk from Birkdale’s 1st tee, Poulter is in his element. His family are bustling around him as the golfer relives events here in 2008. Poulter’s second-place finish – Padraig Harrington took the Claret Jug by four, with a score of plus three that typified the attritional nature of the Open that year – represents his highest major finish.
“I remember hanging tough,” he says. “I knew that Sunday was going to be a gruesome day. I didn’t have the expectation of: ‘Right, I’m going to shoot a low one here to go and win it.’ I was just trying to move up the board. I made an early birdie and thought at that point, if I could post a great score then anything could happen.
“You see those old school leaderboards, it gives you a buzz. Every time they change the score, you are looking. That day, it wasn’t a case of who was making birdies; it was about who was making bogeys. Guys were making mistakes, guys were dropping back really quickly, so it felt like last man standing.”
Poulter regards the Harrington finish – he played the last four holes in three under – as “insane”. Earlier, there had been hope. “The 18th was brutal, playing with a hard wind off the right,” Poulter says. “I didn’t hit a good second shot and chipped it on to 15ft.
“I called Terry [Mundy, his caddie] over, for what he thought was to read his only putt of the week. I said to him: ‘Do you remember putting as a kid, saying this is for the Open?’ He said: ‘Yeah.’ I said: ‘Well I’ve got it. Go away.’ Then I holed it.
“I haven’t been in the position where I had the lead at a major and didn’t get over the line. I don’t know what that disappointment feels like. To hole the putt at the right time? To feel like you have a chance to win? It was absolutely unbelievable.”
Poulter’s 2017 has already proven quite the story. After a period beset by injury and loss of form, he looked certain to lose PGA Tour playing status before ranking points were recalculated. Buoyed in part by that escape, he finished second in the Players Championship. Suddenly, the future looks bright again.
“In February the panic button was being pressed,” Poulter admits. “We were having to evaluate everything that was going on. You can’t hide away from what was going on; you are only as good as your results and what you are allowed to play.
“It was absolutely awful. It’s like: ‘What am I going to do?’ The stress and the energy you are using on that stuff is so great that you can’t play golf.”
Poulter’s vice-captaincy at last year’s Ryder Cup taught him one thing: “How much I missed playing in it. If I wasn’t included in that at all, it would have been horrific. That would have really hurt.” Quite clearly, then, a key aspiration is returning to that fold, where Poulter’s legacy has been forged, next September in Paris.
“It would be like this,” he says. “It would be like missing out on majors and getting back to them. It would be pretty special. I absolutely want to make sure I’m there and I feel with the level of golf I’m playing, I definitely can. I just need to be more ruthless.”
Given history, recent and otherwise, it would be unwise to bet against Poulter fulfilling another dream.