Poulter a ‘match play ninja’ only when he is playing well

Ian Poulter, of England, lines up a putt on the second green during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

AUSTIN, Texas — Memories are strong in match play, which might explain why Ian Poulter picked up a new nickname.

Golf held its version of a selection show Monday night at a downtown hotel when the 16 four-man groups were drawn for the Dell Technologies Match Play. Poulter is the No. 58 seed in the 64-man field, and when his number popped up, he was referred to as a “ninja” in match play.

Not just once. Three times.

“I’ve never really gone up against a ninja before in my life, so it will be a new experience,” said Tommy Fleetwood, who faces Poulter in the opening session. “I don’t know what’s in Austin, but if there is like àKarate for Dummies’ that I can start up on just before Wednesday, I’ll give it a visit.”

He spoke with respect, as most do when it involves Poulter and this head-to-head format.

Fleetwood was finishing up his first full season on the European Tour in 2012 when he watched the Saturday afternoon session of the Ryder Cup at Medinah from his home in England. Poulter, fists shaking and eyes bulging, birdied the last five holes to earn a crucial point in a fourballs match with Rory McIlroy along as merely a witness. The momentum carried forward to the final day when Europe staged a record-tying comeback to win.

“It was pretty epic,” Fleetwood said. “Hopefully, that stays a memory.”

That’s all it is right now — a memory.

Still to be determined is which Poulter he faces on Wednesday.

It could be the guy who took his place in Ryder Cup lore at Medinah, who never lost a Ryder Cup singles match, and who won this World Golf Championship in 2010. Poulter has won 23 matches in the Match Play, tied with McIlroy and Paul Casey for the most among those playing this week (Tiger Woods holds the record of 33 matches won).

Or it could be the guy who hasn’t won a tournament in more than five years.

Yes, there are match play ninjas, and Poulter falls into that category.

“You know if you’re playing Poulter, that reputation comes with him to the first tee,” McIlroy said.

But that usually starts with playing good golf.

No one called Dustin Johnson a match play ninja when it took him four tries just to get out of the first round. He is not the defending champion because of his prowess in this format. He won last year because no one was playing better golf.

And that’s ultimately the secret to being a match play ninja.

“If you play well, usually that takes care of your opponent,” Johnson said with his trademark simplicity.

It’s a big week for Poulter.

He ended last year at No. 54 in the world, just outside the top 50 who were assured of getting into the Masters. He pledged he would be there, and now faces a tall order. The Match Play offers big ranking points, but everyone around him is in Austin. Not only does he have to win his group, Poulter likely would need to reach the quarterfinals Saturday afternoon to move up high enough to crack the top 50.

It helps that the final tournament before the final cutoff is match play instead of stroke play.

“Next week might be a blessing,” Poulter said Sunday at Bay Hill after he closed with a 2-under 70 to tie for 41st.

He likes the way he’s playing. He described himself as a âvery frustrated golferã because he was doing everything well except for the one aspect that he usually does as well as anyone, which is putt.

“I know when I start holing a few putts, it’s going to be great,” Poulter said. “But I’m extremely frustrated because I’m not delivering what I should be.”

That was an interesting choice of words. Before he became a âninjaã during the selection show, Europeans referred to him at the Ryder Cup as the “Postman” because he always delivered.

Jordan Spieth faced a must-win match last year to have any chance of winning his group, and Ryan Moore was not the ideal opponent as a U.S. Amateur champion with a history of being strong in match play.

“I remember stepping on the tee thinking he’s half in form, half he’s got this reputation of being such a phenomenal match-play player,” Spieth said. “And it certainly weighed a little bit into how I was thinking going into it.”

Poulter at least has a reputation, and plenty of strong memories. That’s not always enough. He was asked the difference of playing match play and stroke play.

“The mindset changes,” he said. “But putting doesn’t change.”

Good golf goes a long way in any format.

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