Ian Poulter deserves praise, not criticism for Players strategy

The Englishman came under fire from Brandel Chamblee for not playing to win

A fortnight ago, Ian Poulter could only have dreamed about being part of such a discussion. As it transpires, the Englishman's runner-up finish at the Players Championship – a terrific achievement, given the context – has triggered a curious debate among analysts. The accusation is this: that Poulter was overly conservative over the closing stretch at Sawgrass where, to the extent as believed by the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, he "clearly did not play to win".

Poulter immediately and understandably took umbrage with such sentiment. If there was ever a time to have a pop at him, this was hardly it. Having toiled with injury and form to the point that he flirted with losing full status on the PGA Tour, here was the 41-year-old at the business end of their flagship competition. If they are being honest, those commentators who criticised Poulter on Sunday would have scoffed at the notion of him finishing second if asked before a ball was struck. Perhaps Poulter still suffers from being such a thorn in the United States' side in Ryder Cup tournaments.

With 228 yards to reach the par-five 16th in two, when trailing Kim Si-woo by the same number of strokes, Poulter played for the middle of the fairway rather than attack the green. Two issues are more pertinent than distance remaining here: Poulter had encountered a treacherous lie in the rough, plus the water hazard that closely guards the putting surface. In the words of the man himself on Twitter: “I never thought a four-iron from 228 in rough and a downslope, with tuft of grass behind a green I can’t carry it on, would cause so much nonsense.”

Poulter played percentage golf. So what? He reckoned his own chances of giving himself an eagle putt were probably no better than one in 20. Had he gone for that, carved his second into the lake or pulled it into an equally troublesome position on the left, he would have rightly been castigated for the kind of recklessness that costs golfers tournaments week on week.


He would also surely have realised that Kim, playing behind him and yet to drop a single shot on day four, would have been consumed by the nerves associated with any 21-year-old trying to claim such a marquee event. As it transpired, Kim closed out his round without any errors, but Poulter would have been crazy to make the Korean’s task considerably easier.

Poulter’s mistake, as he surely will concede himself, was a not particularly good third shot that meant a birdie opportunity from 30ft rather than, as would be hoped, a third of that distance. The reason he did not win in Florida owed everything to missed birdie chances over the closing 36 holes, not a lack of bottle.

Poulter is hardly renowned as one of golf’s great conservatives. He has made a career out of an aggressive on-course approach, just as his outstanding shot into the 72nd hole at the Players event from among shrubbery was the epitome of cavalier. Earlier, Poulter’s desire to force something exceptional – in technical terms, his body moved way ahead of the club on the downswing – resulted in a shank from semi-rough. He was hardly plodding along, utilising defensive strategy.

Whether Poulter finished in a share of second, as was the case, third or fourth was not particularly relevant. He had emphatically announced his return to the big time, to the point where a couple of hundred thousand dollars either way would not have concerned him.

There is, though, a wider debate regarding appropriate golfing strategy. For those far lower down the pecking order, there is constantly a mental challenge that pits risk and reward versus consolidating a strong position. The latter is widely regarded as dangerous, like the football team playing for a draw or seeming happy to preserve a 1-0 lead. Golfers who even subconsciously tighten up or take on shots that did not move them into a strong position in the first place routinely slip up. But this is easier said than done, at whatever level, when relative prizes are so valuable.

Rory McIlroy offers a case in point. When holding what seemed an unassailable lead at the Masters of 2011, when in such close proximity of his holy grail, he opted to hold on to what he had, with disastrous consequences. “You can’t protect a lead, you can’t defend,” McIlroy says. “You have to keep going, you have to set yourself a target.”

Jordan Spieth did precisely that at Augusta National four years later, with the Texan famously saying to his caddie on the 11th tee that he had to believe he was behind rather than, as was the case, in front of Justin Rose. Spieth's procession victory was by four.

Poulter was denied that sense of triumph on Sunday. That does not mean he did not do his very best to achieve it. He was sensible with course management, which will outweigh gay abandon more times than most.

(Guardian service)