Jeff Shain

Ian Poulter is trying to clear his mind, lest he lose his playing status

Ian Poulter hits his ball from the fairway of No. 9 during the second round of the RBC Heritage on Friday at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Ian Poulter hits his ball from the fairway of No. 9 during the second round of the RBC Heritage on Friday at Harbour Town Golf Links. dearley@islandpacket.com

Ian Poulter is playing Harbour Town this week like he doesn’t care. Or at least he’s trying to.

That can’t be easy, can it?

“I don’t care,” Poulter cracked. “Life’s good. What have I got to moan about?”

Point taken. From working-class beginnings as an assistant pro at England’s Chesfield Downs Golf Club, Poulter’s rise has taken him to 14 wins worldwide and more than $36 million in earnings. He’s a Ryder Cup hero in Europe, a match-play maven who was the catalyst for the “Miracle at Medinah” nearly five years ago.

Then there’s this: He needs another $145,000 between this week and his next start to keep full status on the PGA Tour. Not that he’ll disappear completely, but we’d be seeing less of him on these shores in the short term.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” Poulter said. “Obviously you keep asking the questions, so it’s right there.”

He half-grinned as he said it. At the same time, the vibe was fairly clear that the less he had to talk about it, the better.

After missing last season’s second half following foot surgery, Poulter is playing the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing as part of a major medical extension. For those unversed in such matters, it’s a makeup test for those who miss a significant chunk of time.

Players are allowed to add enough post-injury starts to their abbreviated season that will equate to an average season. At that point, they must meet the same benchmark in FedExCup points or earnings as anyone who played a full season.

Poulter was given 10 additional starts to earn 218 more points or collect $347,634 in earnings.

With two opportunities left, he still needs 117 points or $144,669. That may sound like a lot, but a top-12 finish would likely do the trick. Cracking the top 10 takes the guesswork out.

So far, so good. Poulter’s 5-under-par 66 on Thursday matched his best round in seven visits to Harbour Town, and Friday’s 68 left him just two shots off the lead shared by Luke Donald and Graham DeLaet.

Looking at it another way, two of his best three scores ever at Harbour Town have come this week.

“I have to say this is probably the lowest I’ve been after two days,” Poulter understated. “My golf is getting very, very consistent from a ball-striking perspective over the last couple of days, and it’s definitely put me in position.”

Extra work on his putting stroke also seems to be paying off. The secret now is to find a way to keep it going.

Poulter has something of an odd history with Harbour Town. Though he’s never missed an RBC Heritage cut, neither has he ever placed in the top 15. His best finish is a share of 18th two years ago when he shot 67-70 on the weekend.

That’s the only time he’s ever broken 70 in a weekend round. And 18th isn’t going to quite do it, if he wants to put the questions away.

“I just want to go out and play good golf,” he said. “Thinking about it is obviously not going to help. If I try and win this golf tournament and hit good golf shots, and commit to every single shot I play, then I would think I would be good enough.”

If this was a Ryder Cup weekend, you’d bet on Poulter. Dollar signs, though, have a funny way of affecting players’ thinking.

Tell a player he needs a birdie/birdie finish to force a playoff, he can process that. Poulter sparked that Medinah comeback with five consecutive birdies to singlehandedly beat Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner in Saturday four-balls.

But tell a guy he needs to make X amount of dollars this week to keep his card, or gain some other reward, and the brain overheats. Every putt subconsciously has a dollar sign attached to it.

Aaaaggggghh!

And so Poulter is doing the prudent thing — trying to get back to basics. See the shot, execute the shot, keep the trouble to a minimum. Numbers are for yardages.

Except that well-meaning observers keep wanting to stay on top of his progress.

“I’ve come here to try to win this golf tournament,” Poulter said. “I’ll be aggressive to my target, take everything else out of my mind — all of the nonsense going on, people asking questions, which they’re going to. Keep it simple, go play golf.”

Check back Sunday evening.

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain

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