By TIM DAHLBERG
MEDINAH, Ill. — The magenta shirt suited Ian Poulter well, even if it wasn’t quite his taste.
His usual pink would have been better, but that wasn’t the European uniform Saturday at the Ryder Cup. So magenta it was, because a good teammate wears team colors.
And, oh, what a teammate Poulter was Saturday in a fist-pumping, gut-roaring, bug-eyed display of golf that left his playing partner, the No. 1 player in the world, shaking his head in amazement.
“It’s intense. It’s very intense,” Rory McIlroy said. “He just gets that look in his eye, especially when he makes one of those big putts, and he’s fist-pumping, and he’ll just look right through you.”
If the look was impressive — Poulter’s signature bulging-eye glare that he concedes “can be a little scary to most” — the golf was even more so. Medinah Country Club was set up by the U.S. side to make birdies, but what Poulter did bordered on ridiculous.
With European chances fading as fast as the light on a beautiful day in the Chicago suburbs, he ran off five straight birdies at the end to steal a point from the U.S. in a Ryder Cup performance made even more remarkable because it was done before a hostile crowd while most of his teammates couldn’t get out of the way of their own putters.
With a final 12-footer on the 18th hole that just had to go in, he almost single-handedly rescued his teammates and gave them hope to play another day.
No, the Englishman whose first job was folding shirts at a golf center didn’t win the Ryder Cup for the European team. No one player can do that, including Tiger Woods, who can’t even win a point for the Americans.
But he stopped a potential rout. And he made sure that Sunday will now be a lot more interesting.
“‘It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Poulter said. “We have kind of recovered a little bit today. It was not looking good.”
If it was fantastic, and it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Poulter may be in the running for the title of best player to have never won a major, but he excels when it’s us-against-them and that’s what the Ryder Cup is all about.
The fans yelling at his ball to go in the water or stay out of the hole merely made him that more determined.
“I love the fight of it,” Poulter said. “You get to stare your opponent straight in the face. Sometimes that’s what you need to do.”
He was 8-3 in three previous Ryder Cups coming in, and he conquered a personal demon the day earlier when he won a match against Tiger Woods, who had handed him two of his Ryder Cup defeats. For some reason, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal sat Poulter down in the second match, but he came back Saturday morning primed to play in both the alternate shot and better ball matches.
The fun began even before he hit a shot. Paired with Justin Rose against Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, Poulter knew from what happened the day before that Watson would wave his arms and try to get the crowd to scream and yell as he hit his opening tee shot, even though that’s a no-no in golf etiquette.
So Poulter decided to do it first, urging the crowd to yell and scream as he hit his first drive. There would be no first tee intimidation on this day.
Poulter and Rose would go on to win that match, the only one the Europeans took in the opening session. For most of the afternoon, though, it looked as though his streak had run out when he and McIlroy struggled against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.
Then Poulter went on a run that will be part of Ryder Cup lore.
By the time he made his third birdie in a row, curling in an 18-footer on the tough par-4 16th, he and McIlroy were suddenly up. He matched birdies on the tricky par-3 17th with Johnson and had a 12-footer for birdie to win the match after Dufner made one of his own.
His teammates gathered around the 18th green to watch knew it was in before it left the putter. They call Poulter “The Postman” because in the Ryder Cup he always seems to deliver.
“I’ve got me teammates right behind me,” Poulter said. “I’m not going to miss it for them, am I?”
It’s that kind of attitude that endears him to his colleagues and irritates his opponents. He’s become the guy on the European team no one likes to face, as much for his fiery demeanor as his impressive record.
Olazabal said Poulter reminded him of the late Seve Ballesteros, who thrived in the format.
” I think the Ryder Cup should build a statue for him, you know? You know, that’s Poulter,” Olazabal said. “That’s why we say that he has such a special character for this event. He thrives at this event. He loves to be on the spotlight. He loves to be in that kind of situations.”
On Sunday, mild-mannered U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson will be that opponent as Poulter tries to kick-start yet another comeback. With Europe trailing 10-6, Olazabal sent off Poulter in the second of 12 matches, just ahead of McIlroy. The best of the European team goes out early as Olazabal tries to mimic the strategy of the 1999 U.S. team that came back to win from the same score at Brookline.
Instead of being cheered to victory as the U.S. team was back then, the Europeans will find themselves up against not only the Americans but a loose and loud Chicago crowd.
“That’s fine by me,” Poulter said. “I guess I’ve had a bull’s eye on my back for a while. Guys want to beat me, That’s fine. I want to beat them just as bad as they want to beat me, and I’m not going to roll over. I’m going to go down blazing. It’s dead simple.”
If that sounds intimidating, it should be.