When a top golfer launches into a verbal attack on a championship course, it is usually because he has just shot an 80. But Ian Poulter is not your typical player and he likened Muirfield to a crazy golf course after starting his challenge for The Open with a 72.
It has been bad enough for the committee men to hear constant criticism of their men-only policy, but to have their course compared with a cheap seaside attraction would surely have brought on an attack of the vapours in the clubhouse.
He was still muttering under his breath after a second-round 71 that left him only four strokes adrift of overnight leader Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Poulter performed heroics at the Ryder Cup last year, inspiring Europe’s incredible fightback. Most pundits believed it would be the catalyst for the fanatical Arsenal supporter to kick on, but it hasn’t happened.
The Ryder Cup will be remembered, too, for the antics of Bubba Watson, encouraging the American fans to whoop and holler while he was driving on the first hole. Poulter, who is never one to miss an opportunity, then did the same thing. Paired with Justin Rose, he beat Watson and Webb Simpson in the Saturday foursomes.
And the two were reunited yesterday, with Watson finally showing some signs of returning to the form that won him The Masters last year. The American left-hander, who hits the ball miles, wasn’t expected to do well here because Muirfield demands precision. “Precise” is not a word anybody would use when describing Watson’s approach to golf.
Poulter missed the cut at Augusta and finished 21st at the US Open, but he did at least reach the semi-finals of the Accenture World Matchplay championship. Watson, meanwhile, admitted that he struggled for motivation after winning The Masters, but a fourth-place at the Travelers championship last month indicated that he might have turned a corner.
This time they both decided against working the gallery into a frenzy and chatted like old friends as they left the first tee.
Poulter, for once, wasn’t a one-man fashion disaster, choosing to wear a white top and white trousers with a subtle grey stripes. Well, subtle in the world of Ian Poulter at any rate.
The Englishman knew that he was going to be playing his approach shot first on just about every hole. He also knew the importance of putting those shots in the correct place. When he failed to do so at the second, his ball ran off the green and he did well to two-putt for a par.
And he didn’t help himself when he struck a rescue club into knee-high rough at the third. If Poulter was to contend for his first major he had to steady the ship quickly. To his credit, he dug the ball out, found the green and nearly holed out for an unlikely birdie. Watson was hitting fairways and greens in a manner that was most unlike him.
But it didn’t last. Suddenly he began spraying it about like a demented tennis ball machine. A shot went at the fourth and although he got it straight back at the next, he three-putted the par-three seventh from nowhere and dropped another shot at the next when he put his tee-shot with an iron into a fairway bunker, couldn’t reach the green with his second and took three more to get down.
The ninth is a downwind par five, easily reachable for Watson in two shots. He found trouble off the tee again, hacked his ball into thick rough 50 yards from the green and produced a miraculous shot to find the putting surface. But he failed to make the putt and turned in 38, taking him to three over for the tournament.
Poulter also dropped a shot at the fourth, in common with many other players. Another one went at the sixth and, like Watson, he found sand from the tee on the eighth and fell back to three over for the round.
But the Englishman is nothing if not a fighter and although he drove into the rough from the ninth tee, he produced a wonderful shot that nearly found the front of the green. Two putts later, he had his first birdie of the day. Like Watson, he played the front nine in 38 and was three over.
The bad news is that if you are going to do well at Muirfield you have to make your score on the front nine and aim to limit the damage on the run for home.
Many spectators were muttering about how poorly these two were playing. No matter how good you are, it is impossible to legislate for the sort of bounces on rock-hard fairways that divert a perfect drive into a pot bunker. And the fairways and greens are now so hard and fast that there is little or no chance of stopping a ball.
The best players in the world are used to throwing the ball high into the air and either stopping it stone-dead or drawing it back to the hole with backspin, but there has been little or none of that this week. Just to add to the conundrum, the putting surfaces are like glass.
“He hasn’t hit it hard enough, it’s going to be miles short,” whisper spectators as the ball rolls six feet beyond the hole. Poulter and Watson had problems working out the pace of the greens, and they weren’t alone.
Watson is happy to cultivate his image as a “Good Ole Boy”, and the galleries love him for it. The downside is that as he walks to every tee, green and fairway he has to listen to dozens of shouts of “Hey Bubba.” He should be thankful that they at least possess the intelligence to know his name.
It was a tough afternoon, with difficult scoring conditions. Former champion Ben Curtis took 80 blows, in-form American Kevin Streelman 82 and Shiv Kapur, who raced to the turn in 30 shots on the opening day, came crashing back to earth with an 83. This time he required 44 shots for those same nine holes.
Any victory hopes that Watson might still have harboured disappeared when he dropped four shots at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. The spring in his step had long since gone.
Poulter ground out six pars on the back nine, but let a shot go at the short 16th and failed to birdie the par-five 17th. Sadly, he failed to par the last. A round of 75 sees him start the final round five over par. His chances have probably gone for another year. Watson is two shots further adrift after a 77.
It wasn’t pretty, but there was never a dull moment.
Derek Clements is a sports journalist with a particular passion for golf with over 12 years of experience covering golf and other sports including Chief Sub-Editor on the sports desk of The Sunday Times. To contact Derek email direct via [email protected]
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