Coming down the stretch of Sunday’s final round, Ian Poulter was the only pursuer who could catch leader Si Woo Kim. Trailing by two on the reachable par-5 16th, Poulter decided to lay up despite a decent lie in the rough, his ensuing wedge shot was played conservatively to the middle of the green and he two-putted for par.
Although 17 had a treacherous pin on the very right side of the green, Poulter gave zero thought of attacking the flag and potentially putting more pressure on Kim. Instead, he again played to the center of the green with a wedge in his hand to ensure a par.
By the time the Englishman reached the 18th tee, his chances were all but extinguished and he eventually finished in a tie for second.
Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee ripped into Poulter after the round. Chamblee said that Poulter played not to win and that is exactly what happened.
A Twitter spat ensued, but this situation is far from cut and dry. The fact is, Poulter was a wuss and a smart businessman. His dilemma is more common through the PGA Tour and gives a glimpse to the grind that encompasses 95% of the tour.
It is an aspect of the tour that is far removed from the cameras, interviews, and high-paying equipment deals, but it plays out every week.
It is easy to focus on those in contention on Sunday afternoon, but the true life of the tour exists in those grinding week-to-week to make the cut and earn a check to get them closer to acquiring or maintaining their tour cards.
For most players, there is more pressure trying to make the cut on Friday afternoon than trying to win a tournament on a Sunday.
If a player comes up short and misses the cut, they aren’t getting paid, they are most certainly being passed on the money list and FedEx Cup standings, and there future on the tour can become increasingly murkier.
If a player comes up short on a Sunday, they still garner a $500,000 check and take a huge step in securing their tour card for the following year.
These types of situations don’t present themselves to the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroy’s of the world. They have been so successful, that they have the luxury of only caring about wins and if they blow a chance by being too aggressive, so be it, they’ll have plenty of other opportunities.
Poulter’s game had fallen off in recent years. The Englishman suffered a foot injury last year (the severity of with is still debated with many people thinking he exaggerated the injury in order to earn this exemption and give himself a better shot a keeping his card) and was allowed a medical exemption for the early part of this season where he had a certain number of tournaments to attain a certain amount of money or FedEx Cup points.
After missing the cut at the Valero Texas Open, it appeared that Poulter would fall short of his goal and lose his card. However, Brian Gay, who was in a similar circumstance as far as tour eligibility, notified tour officials of a discrepancy in their point distribution, which allowed Gay and Poulter to keep their cards.
This stroke of good luck was the only reason Poulter was in The Players field to begin with.
His antics on the course, his prickly personality towards fans, and his braggadocios persona on social media makes him one of the most disliked players on the tour. He carries himself and has the ego of a major champion, but he had never won a stroke play event in the US.
Even with all of that surrounding his situation, I couldn’t get behind the people were openly rooting against him regaining his tour card.
Poulter has made plenty of money (mostly through sponsors, his shirts and hats could be mistaken for a stock car on most days) and he will let you know about it, but his situations exemplified how fleeting success in the world of golf can be.
One day you are a top-15 player and the next, you are fighting for your tour card on the edge of the Web.com tour.
So with all that surrounding him, it is easy to see how Poulter would prioritize protecting a high finish, especially at The Players, which has the largest purse on tour, over going for the win and making a big number down the stretch.
In other sports, being cognizant of the money in the game has a negative connotation – it conveys selfish, me-first attitude. In golf, however, every player in an independent contractor and the money they make in the criteria in which they maintain their status on the tour.
It is easy to sit on a couch and call him a wuss for playing safe, and that is a valid opinion, but there is also the real life circumstance outside the ropes that isn’t readily apparent to the viewer at home.
Now, Johnny Miller’s comment saying he was “proud” of Poulter for handling the pressure and putting the ball on the green was way over the top, but it’s important to note that in some cases, there is more than just the tournament on the line.
There no right or wrong way to look at it, but Poulter’s personality puts gasoline on the flames of this debate.
I would have more sympathy for an up-and-comer in Poulter’s situation, but his standing on the tour is equally as precarious.
So, was Poulter a wuss for not going for the green in two on 16 and not firing at the pin of 17? Absolutely. However, by playing the safe shot, he secured his tour card and playing privileges for the next year.
If he does not rekindle his form that made him a Ryder Cup stalwart, he could find himself in the same situation in the near future.
That’s just the nature of life on the PGA Tour.