Ian Poulter seizes opportunity to join the pack in contention at The Players Championship

Two weeks ago, the Englishman was not even supposed to be at this week’s Players Championship. Now he could walk away the tournament winner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 11:58am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 11:58am

Two weeks ago, Ian Poulter was not even supposed to be at this week’s Players Championship.

Now he could walk away the tournament winner.

Poulter, with an assist from fellow Orlando-area resident Brian Gay, unexpectedly secured his PGA Tour card May 1 to slip into the strongest field in golf.

Following a workmanlike, 1-under par 71 Saturday at TPC Sawgrass, Poulter is in contention, trailing leaders J.B. Holmes and Kyle Stanley by three shots.

“I feel like obviously the door has been opened,” Poulter said. “I want to walk through that door.”

Poulter had faced an uphill climb this season playing on a medical exemption. He came up $30,000 shy of earning exempt status when he missed the cut April 21 at the Valero Texas Open.

But Gay, facing a similar situation, discovered how a change in the points structure this year had shortchanged him and Poulter.

“It was a nice phone call to receive,” Poulter said.

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However he got to TPC, the 41-year-old Englishman now aims to win the tour’s showcase event and earn a five-year exemption.

“Obviously a win would be exceptionally nice because then it changes things dramatically,” Poulter said. “I mean, dramatically.”

Poulter turned in Saturday’s only bogey-free round, but likely will need a few more birdies Sunday. He also knows anything can happen during the final round.

Poulter finished runner-up here in 2009 when Henrik Stenson won from five shots back to begin the day, matching 1998 Players champion Justin Leonard for the largest final-round deficit overcome at TPC Sawgrass.

Besides history, the course conditions this week set the stage for a wild, unpredictable finish.

Many top players struggled to find their games amid gusting winds and the threat of storms during Saturday’s third round.

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Vijay Singh’s bid to become the oldest winner in PGA Tour history ended with a 7-over 79. Rising star Jon Rahm entered the day five strokes back, but shot 42-40-82.

The 22-year-old had two of the 15 nine-holes scores of 40 or higher.

“As I got to the practice ground, it was blowing 25, and just realised how tricky today was going to be,” said Poulter. “It was about playing smart, trying not to get out of position. Would have been very easy to do that today.

“I know a few players have done that.”

Several players did rise to the occasion.

Tour veteran Pat Perez had seven birdies en route to a 66, the day’s low score, and sits at 4-under overall. Reigning Masters winner Sergio Garcia had a chance to match the round, but like Perez bogeyed the difficult 18th hole to settle for a 67.

Garcia was 4-over par after his first six holes this week, but sits at 5-under par. He won the 2007 Players champion from three shots back entering the final day and has the best track record of those atop the leaderboard.

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Garcia’s 10 wins on US soil are more than the combined number (nine) of the other 11 players within five shots of the lead.

“I just like the golf course,” Garcia said. “It’s one of my most favourite golf courses we play all year, and for some reason I can see what I want to do.”

Designer Pete Dye’s challenging layout usually catches up to a golfer eventually.

Holmes was cruising along when he reached the par-4 14th hole holding a one-shot lead. He then blocked his drive well right and into a lake by the tee box at the 12th hole on his way to an all-world bogey.

Holmes struggled with this driver the rest of the round, but managed hold it together and even birdied on the par-3 17th when he hit his tee shot to five feet.

“It was an adventurous day for sure,” he said.

Stanley’s round nearly went off the rails early, with bogeys on three of his first four holes. But he managed to settle down and made two birdies and no bogeys the rest of the way.

“I thought I handled it pretty well ... just had to remind myself to stay pretty patient,” he said.

It will be a mantra worth repeating early and often during Sunday’s final round.