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Long memory serves Ian Poulter well

4/10/2013 - Golf Ian Poulter
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The Wearing Of The Green Jacket

Rick Reilly examines one of the strangest and most iconic trophies in the sports world.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You wouldn't know it by first impressions, but my choice to win the Masters (Non-Tiger Division) not only comes from humble beginnings but still works as though he's making minimum wage, not millions.

He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Butler Cabin, but in a good way. He turns into a puddle of love around his wife and four kids -- and any ill child whose family might need a little help. He has never won a major, never had a top-5 finish at Augusta National, but if Mel Kiper did a mock draft for toughest competitors, either Woods or my guy would be the No. 1 pick.

Ian Poulter is due. He has the game and the experience, and he'll laughingly tell you, "I look fantastic in green."

As in, jacket.

Spending a day with Poulter at his Lake Nona digs in Orlando is like spending three days with anybody else. There is no dimmer switch on his life.

"Oh, there's never a dull moment with Ian," said his wife, Katie. "We have an absolute hoot."

"It's mad," said Poulter. "24/7 madness."

Or as his longtime agent R.J. Nemer dryly observed: "Ian lives out loud."

He does, doesn't he? His clothes are loud. His Ryder Cup celebrations are loud. His stable of Ferraris and muscle cars are loud. The only thing he does quietly is sleep.

"I would say I'm confident," Poulter said. "I'm passionate. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Fun guy."

Americans don't know what to do with him, except hope that he someday renounces his British citizenship. Every two years, Poulter usually sticks a 4-iron through the heart of the USA's Ryder Cup hopes. He has never lost a singles match and is 12-3 overall. Tiger would give him a yacht to have that record.

Yet it's impossible not to like Poulter. Or, at the very least, respect him. He's sort of the English version of the late, great Payne Stewart: stylish, determined, an acquired taste.

"I guess if [people] just see me on camera, they see someone that's confident, quite loud, that's quite outlandish," said Poulter. "But yet I'm just as normal as they are. ... They know my personality on the golf course because they see that. But they don't know me, the person -- Ian, the golfer away from the golf course."

Ian The Person has four children, two of them born in the States. He was engaged to Katie for 11 years, dropping to a knee on a Christmas Day to propose.

"I think we had the longest engagement in history," said Katie.

His friends and family will tell you he is a cocktail mix of arrogance and tenderness. Poulter was 18 and a little-regarded assistant pro at a public course, where, among other things, he sold candy bars in the shop, when he first met Katie's parents. Within minutes, he told them that someday he would be a famous golfer on the PGA Tour.

"My mum and dad just laughed," said Katie. "But you look back now, the journey's been absolutely amazing. He always said he was going to be famous one day, and here we are."

Ian The Person hated school, wasn't good enough to become a pro soccer player and has worked for his own money since he was 11. His mom worked two jobs, and his dad grinded away, too. Lower-middle class sounds about right to Poulter.

He still has his assistant pro trainee ID badge. He keeps it in a trophy case not far from his Ryder Cup collection. That's because he wants to remember the past. And the slights.

"I was told on numerous occasions, by not only a teacher but by various people, 'You're never going to be a golf pro -- not good enough,'" Poulter said. "And I took a lot of inspiration from that because when people tell me something can't be done, that's just complete nonsense. They're very weak-minded people, and I've got no time for that. I'd rather turn around and say shame on them."

Ian The Person is also Ian The Wealthy. His career winnings are close to $40 million, and that doesn't include whatever he's making in assorted endorsements. His art deco-style house, which he helped design, took two years to build and includes every convenience, including an upstairs see-through floor and a contraption that winds his collection of watches. His car collection is gearhead heaven: Ferraris (his babies, beginning with an F40 that he has driven a grand total of 2 miles), a Rolls-Royce and a Ford GT, among others.

He's a long time removed from his first car, a used Vauxhall Astra that he bought as a teenager. It was more rust than metal and cost him about $450. That wouldn't pay for a car mat in the Ferrari.

His next car literally blew up. "And I had to buy a real heap of junk after that -- 150 pounds or $225," he said. "And that blew up after four months."

Poulter still has photos of those beaters on his cellphone. Remember, the past is what drives him.

"I appreciate everything I've got," he said. "Proud of everything I have. I don't take anything for granted. That's why I don't mind showing some people what's achievable. Because it all is."

Poulter, 37, is the local bloke made good, the teenager who shared a tent with a couple of buddies for $5 a night so he could watch the 1993 Ryder Cup in person at The Belfry. He is the slightly chubby assistant pro who willed himself to become something much more. He is the guy who used to room with fellow Brit Justin Rose when the two young pros were scraping by on Europe's minor league golf circuit.

Now Poulter has his own clothing line in an effort to keep the world safe from khaki pants. He has the resources and the charity affiliations to raise money for a local children's hospital. And he has a history of helping causes dedicated to cancer victims and disabled or severely ill children.

By his own admission, he wants for nothing. He has all the money and toys he'll ever need. His family is happy and healthy.

"I don't have to win anymore golf tournaments," he said. "I want to win more golf tournaments. And I want to win majors. So there's two very different things there."

He has two top-10 finishes at Augusta in the past three years. In the past five years at the Open Championship, he has finished as high as second and tied for ninth. At the 2012 PGA Championship, he finished tied for third.

Maybe what he ought to do is wear a Team Europe uniform during a major. Because it works when he plays in a Ryder Cup. Poulter becomes virtually unbeatable. If only he could carry that mojo to each of the four biggies.

"I've asked myself a million times, because I'd like to replicate that in stroke play," he said. "It's just very difficult."

Poulter needed three weeks to recover from September's Miracle at Medinah. He was physically and emotionally spent. Plus, it takes time to get the champagne spots out of your clothes.

It's not like the majors don't matter to him; they do. His trophy case includes all his player badges from the Masters and all his Masters crystal. Of the four majors, he said the Open Championship and the Masters give him the best chance to win.

And yet ... zilch.

"I'm disappointed I haven't [won]," he said. "If I haven't won, it's because I've made mistakes."

This is the laundered version of Poulter's disappointment. He despises losing -- in anything. He even despises hitting a crummy shot. He says the day he is satisfied finishing 15th and cashing a check is the day he quits playing professionally.

I was following Poulter as he played the 18th hole during the final round at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational. He wasn't anywhere near the lead, but he grinded like he was. When his second shot landed in a greenside bunker, he fumed like it had just cost him the tournament.

He shot a 3-over-par 75 that day, and you could have steamed clams on his forehead. But he stopped on the way to the players' parking lot and signed every autograph asked of him. Maybe it was the kids lined up against the barrier that did it.

This will be Poulter's ninth Masters as a player. He can remember the first one he watched as a teenager more than 20 years ago, when the Welshman Ian Woosnam slipped on the green jacket after beating Jose Maria Olazabal by a single stroke. Ever the fashion expert, Poulter can even remember what color pants Woosie wore that day.

If Poulter wins a Masters or one of the other majors, it will put an exclamation point on a career that no one predicted except, well, Poulter. He is already a success story. Now he'd like to add layers to the cake.

Poulter isn't favored this week. He never is. But as always, he likes his chances. The reason -- which is the story of his life -- is simple enough.

"Because," he said, "anything's possible."