The Last American

Hey Eddie, pull the pin.”

Walter Hagen

to Edward, the Prince of Wales, 1933. (Apocryphal.)

On 29 January 1917 Hagen married Margaret Johnson of Rochester. The couple had one child before the marriage was dissolved in the spring of 1921, in part because of Hagen’s frenetic travel schedule and his fondness for other women

—American National Biography Online. “The life of a nation is told by the lives of its people…”

I have a history with Ian Poulter, winner this week at the Match Play. Now, don’t overreact, this isn’t a “bimbo eruption”—though in a way it’s close. Nobody’s ever accused Poulter of serial infidelities, but he does have a track record of boorish behavior. Back in September, he skipped the Seve Trophy, a tournament often considered a warm-up to the Ryder Cup. Team captain Colin Montgomerie—who, sure, himself isn’t known as a big puddle of teddy-bearishness—wasn’t happy about it. Monty especially wasn’t happy because Poulter didn’t play his way onto the last Ryder Cup team: he was a captain’s pick, meaning that Monty felt Poulter owed him something. On the day of, Poulter didn’t help himself with Montgomerie by Twittering about his hangover. Poulter is more Walter Hagen then Ben Hogan when it comes to preparation, it seems.

Of course, Hagen was known for having a sense of humor. Poulter is better known not only for his fashion sense but for being a target for jokes—often the 0ne following on the other. When he wore pants depicting the trophy of the British Open, the Claret Jug, DURING the Open in 2005 and 2006, Seve Ballesteros—yep, same one—made the obvious crack about how that was the closest Poulter would get to said jug. The funniest thing Poulter has ever said was in an interview in 2009: “I know I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.” At that time, the guy still hadn’t won a tournament in the U.S. He’s also a fan of the Arsenal Football Club. Imagine a combination of the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Dallas Cowboys, with a greater propensity for drunken brawling, and you’ll get the idea of Arsenal’s fanbase.

What I know personally about Poulter comes from the pro-am at Cog Hill for the Western Open some years ago. It’s an unusual pro-am for the tour because all of the caddies are, for the most part, present or ex-Evans Scholars, college scholarship winners, which is to say there is a pretty wide range of caddies. I was assigned an amateur that morning and Poulter was our pro. He didn’t talk much throughout the first nine holes, not that I had much chance to anyway: my player and I were, shall we say, seeing a lot more of the course than Poulter was. On the second nine another looper in the group had to drop out; an older fellow, he couldn’t take the September heat up and down Cog’s elevations. I picked up his bag too.

A few holes later, my golfer had finally gotten onto a green only one over regulation, so we had a putt for a par. Unfortunately however, it was a Canadian bobsled run of a putt: slick with a strong chance for serious injury. Hit it too hard, the ball might depart the green without asking questions. The amateur naturally asked for a read.

Now, I had been reading this guy’s putts all day. Luckily, he and I had the same philosophy when it comes to putts, and that is that hitting the ball higher and softer will usually put the ball around the hole, even if you don’t make it. This is a pretty good strategy for an amateur, and Dave Pelz, the short-game statistician, has found that even professional golfers tend to play too little break. By playing the line of the putt a bit higher than you might even think, you’ll find fewer putts breaking across the hole as they approach it, and even the ones that don’t go in will end up around it. That strategy was made for a situation like this, where hitting the ball even a fraction too hard could leave a come-back putt that was longer than the one with which we started. The line I wanted started a good 18 inches or more outside the cup, allowing gravity more than the strike of the putter to pull the ball toward the goal. My guy hit it and … it didn’t quite get there, although he had a tap-in for his bogey.

At that moment Poulter, who hadn’t had much to say to anyone to that point, decided to get involved. He asked the guy why he’d played it so far from the hole, had something to say about local caddies—meaning me—then said that the putt was much straighter, making the time to criticize indirectly the speed my player had hit the ball. Finally, he decided to strike the putt himself, in order to demonstrate his point. He did. The ball flew across the green like it was on fire, ending up some twenty or twenty-five feet from the hole, perhaps twice again as far as at the start. It was not a proud moment for English golf, and maybe especially strange insofar as CBS spent a great deal of time during the last round talking about how much study Poulter devotes to the greens at a tournament venue.

Shortly after that, a thunderstorm mercifully blew up, ending the day. Poulter had not left a good impression among anybody in the group, though that seems to be a common consensus around the world. Googling “Ian Poulter” calls up a lot of what might at best be termed “uncouth” moments. And that, much later, led me to a realization about Ian Poulter. He isn’t, you see, really English at all. Ian Poulter, despite the Union Jack trousers he wore during the opening round of the Open Championship in 2004, is an American.

Or at least, a kind of cartoon of an American, an American as an outsider might imagine Americans to be. The American coin whose “heads” side is Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones’ slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me,” and whose “tails” side is every sort of Ugly American stereotype. To some Europeans, that sort of America is still heartening—though not necessarily on America’s own terms. “America” doesn’t mean anything in itself; rather, its power comes as a symbol of opposition to the stodgy Establishment of the person’s own country. The “captain” (Americans would call him the club president) of Royal Troon, site of that year’s Open, said “we wouldn’t wish to encourage that type of attire.” When he was starting as a professional golfer, working at a public course because he couldn’t get a job at a private one, his boss required him to pay the greens fee to compete in the monthly tournament, something that seems to rankle Poulter still.

Poulter came of age during the “Cool Britannia” years of the late Nineties, when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister promising to sweep away the last vestiges of the ancient British class system. Blair’s Labour Party presided over a booming economy and revoked the hereditary rights of the House of Lords and gave Scotland Home Rule once more by essentially revoking the 1707 Act of Union. In 2004, the same year Poulter appeared in his celebrated costume, the Labour Party banned hunting with dogs, especially fox hunting—perhaps the last great symbol of droit de seigneur in the United Kingdom. There isn’t of course any direct connection between these events and Poulter—at least, the golfer hasn’t said anything—but to my mind it suggests that Poulter views himself as part of a new generation of Englishman, hip and bombastic. In other words, as I’ve said, as an American.

Or at least as what used to be thought of as American. In that sense, Poulter’s comment about Tiger Woods might be more telling than the Englishman knew. Tiger has, after all, always been defined not so much for rebelling against the powers-that-be as for just how much he wants to join them: Dan Jenkins, the legendary golf writer who has followed the tour since the 1940s, recently wrote that Tiger’s goal has been to be the “All-American Daddy-Pop Father of the Year Who Also Wins Golf Tournaments.” Despite the red shirts on Sunday and Tigermania and the rest of it, Tiger has always been distinguished by his enthusiastic acceptance of a kind of 1950s social norm—in public, anyway. It’s exactly for that reason that his list of sponsors has been the envy of all other pros, consisting as it has of blue-chip, blue-jacketed companies like Accenture, American Express, and TAG-Heuer: companies that virtually define the corporate ideal of order. African-American leaders have, quietly, criticized Tiger, like Michael Jordan before him, for refusing to follow the examples of Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe, two athletes (among many others) known not just for their wins but for their social consciousness.

That isn’t to say that Poulter is a socially-conscious athlete, to be sure. I haven’t found any sign of Poulter supporting any sort of social cause anywhere; if he does, he’s keeping pretty quiet about it. Yet his sense of style does exemplify another model for how to be a world-class athlete. Poulter really is in the mold of Walter Hagen, another master of match play who not only dressed flamboyantly but in 1920, during the Open Championship at Deal, hired a flashy car to serve as his locker room because the club house did not admit professional golfers. In that sense, Poulter’s comment of years ago is today, the 22nd of February 2010, really true. In golf, at this moment, it really is just Ian Poulter and Tiger Woods.


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