If you had stumbled into the snooker room at the Ria Park Resort
Hotel in Vale do Garrao, Portugal, last week, you would never
have imagined you were looking at the future of the European
Ryder Cup team. England's Ian Poulter and Justin Rose may be two
of the best young players in Europe, but they could've easily
been mistaken for a couple of lads off the street, the desired
demographic of Maxim magazine. For them a friendly game of
snooker is little more than an excuse to slag off each other in
indecipherable slang, which they did with gusto following the
second round of the Algarve Open de Portugal. Turned out in baggy
T-shirts, torn blue jeans and geometric sideburns, Poulter and
Rose looked like Generation Y slackers, but these
twentysomethings have uncommonly mature golf games. With strong
performances in 2001, both are fighting for a spot in the Sept.
28-30 Ryder Cup at the Belfry, in Sutton Coldfield, England.
The European squad's 12-month qualifying period--which began last
September at the European Masters--is two-thirds over, and
Poulter, 25, is a heady seventh in the points standings. (The top
10 automatically make the team.) Last year's European tour rookie
of the year on the strength of his victory at the Italian Open,
Poulter collected another trophy last month at the Moroccan Open.
Afterward he admitted that his goal this year is to win twice,
which by his calculations should clinch a spot on the team. "I'm
halfway home," he says.
Rose, at the tender age of 20, is already in his third year on
tour, but he has just begun to bloom. With back-to-back
second-place finishes in January, he's up to 15th in the Ryder
Cup standings. "I know what I have to do," he says.
What makes these ruffians all the more intriguing is their
symbiotic bond--they room together on the road, enjoy practice
rounds together and, when they're not hitting balls side by side,
can be found playing snooker or hanging out "at an Irish pub on
the corner, watching footie," according to Texas-born Hank
Kuehne, who has become part of the clique. Last week Poulter and
Rose, with typically youthful insouciance, sized up the prospect
of playing on their first Ryder Cup team. "It's something we lark
about," says Poulter. "We get a lot of laughs out of it, really."
Sam Torrance, the European captain, is taking the possibility
more seriously. "Anyone would want kids like them on his team,"
Torrance said during last week's tournament, at Quinta do Lago, a
parkland course along the Algarve, Portugal's sun-drenched
southern coast. "They're not scared of s---. They want to take on
Poulter, especially, has an acute sense of self-worth. Ask him
for an interview and he comes back with a question of his own:
"How many pages is the story going to be?" His cocksure manner
has not gone unnoticed. Asked to assess Poulter's comportment,
veteran Andrew Coltart pauses, then says, "How am I going to say
this? Ian's young. With that comes a lot of excitement and
exuberance." Poulter is not about to apologize for believing in
himself. "The confidence is justified by the results," he says,
"and there isn't anything anybody can say or do to take it from
Poulter has always been precocious. At 10 he won his first pool
tournament--along the way trumping a series of red-faced
middle-aged co-workers of his father, Terry. In his early teens
Poulter was a standout in soccer and basketball, his accelerated
development a product of trying to keep up with his brother,
Danny, two years his senior. After Danny took a job at the Family
Golf Center in the town of Stevenage, Ian began working a
Saturday shift of his own. Ian turned pro while still in his
teens, as his brother had, and soon landed a job in the pro shop
at Leighton Buzzard Golf Club in Bedfordshire, where his coach,
Lee Scarbrow, was head pro.
This cozy arrangement allowed the 6'1" Poulter countless hours
to shape his long, powerful swing and to hone a short game
that's considered one of the best on the Euro tour. He also
snuck out of the shop to win, he estimates, about two dozen
assistants' tournaments over four years, all the while helping
Mrs. Smith smooth out her swing. "I enjoyed giving lessons,"
Poulter says, though when pressed for details he admits, "I've
tried to erase that part of my memory."
In 1999 Poulter won the Open de Cote d'Ivorie, part of a
successful apprenticeship on the Challenge tour. (Danny is still
playing on that developmental circuit.) He made plenty of
headlines during his rookie year on the big tour, thanks in part
to his mother, Theresa. During the 2000 Qatar Masters, Ian was
overlooked during the Saturday telecast despite hovering around
the top 10 all day. (He would finish 11th.) Thoroughly miffed,
Theresa rang up Sky Sports to complain and laid on such a guilt
trip that the network sent a camera crew to the range to do a
live interview with a startled Ian. The story got so much play
that The Sun, one of England's national newspapers, wound up
giving Ian a sponsorship deal because, as the paper put it, "his
mum loves him."
Poulter proved to be more than only a cute sidebar at last
October's Italian Open. He opened 66-67 to grab a share of the
lead, and this self-confessed speed freak was so stressed-out
that he went go-karting on Friday night. After vrooming to a
third-round 65 to take a three-stroke lead, Poulter spent that
night playing soccer. "I don't get nervous," he says. "For
whatever reason, I don't feel it." During the final round Poulter
birdied three of the last six holes to eke out a one-stroke
victory and shoot to 31st on the season-ending money list with
Poulter produced another typically brassy performance last month
in Morocco. Playing Dar Es Salam's 483-yard par-5 10th hole on
Sunday, he stuck an eight-iron to three feet for an eagle that
sealed the deal. Says Torrance, "Ian is a strong player. Very
strong. He hits it a mile, rolls it beautifully on the greens and
is not afraid of the big moment."
It's not only the captain who has been monitoring Poulter's
progress. Says Rose, "After each of his wins I've thought, Man, I
want a piece of that. I'm pleased as punch for Ian, but I want to
get to that level too. He motivates me like that."
Poulter has had an even more direct effect on Rose's outlook.
"Rooming with Ian last year I learned a lot of things--how he
carries himself, how he deals with a bad round," Rose says. "Some
of his confidence rubbed off, for sure."
Rose burst onto the scene at the '98 British Open at Royal
Birkdale, a grinning 17-year-old who charmed a nation on the way
to a stunning fourth-place finish. He turned pro immediately
after dunking an outrageous pitch on the 72nd hole, but the fairy
tale came to an abrupt end as Rose missed a numbing 17 straight
cuts to begin his pro career. "The whole thing seems like a
vague, hazy, weird memory," he says. "I can't even comprehend
The bottom line was that Rose's handsy swing wasn't that solid
and it unraveled under a blinding spotlight. At his nadir, in
March '99, Rose flew to Florida to spend a week with David
Leadbetter. Last year their work intensified. Rose has stripped
all the excess movement from his swing. The changes gelled in the
latter half of last year, when he made the cut in eight of his
final 10 starts. He continued to fine-tune his swing in December,
spending most of the month with Leadbetter in Florida. (Poulter
tagged along, just because.)
In his first tournament of the 2001 season, the Alfred Dunhill
Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rose put on an
eye-catching display of talent and determination, going
66-67-66-69 (20 under) to finish second to Australia's Adam
Scott. The next week, at the South African Open, Rose again
wound up second. "I felt awesome out there," he says. "The more
intense the pressure got, the more calm I felt. I was relishing
Rose's earlier struggles had fire-proofed his game. "In a weird
way that period has stood me in good stead," he says. "Every time
I had a chance to make a cut it seemed as if cameras would appear
out of the trees. The pressure was overwhelming. I went through
that possibly 15 times, so now when I'm playing well, it brings a
good pressure, a fun pressure, and I feel relaxed."
The purity of his swing is also a source of comfort. "His
mechanics have become very sound, and his tempo is so sweet,"
says Poulter. "It never changes, regardless of the
Rose has spent so much time grooving his long game that he has
neglected his putting stroke. It is mechanical and sometimes
jerky, and he knows it. "I have some work to do, but my game is
to the point where I can begin competing at a higher level," Rose
says. "I have ambitious goals."
Now is the time for an ingenue like Rose to be thinking about
crashing the Ryder Cup party, because the European team remains
in transition. The '99 match was the first since the mid-'70s
that didn't feature any of Europe's Big Four--Seve Ballesteros,
Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. Though a new
generation of stars has stepped into the breach--guys like Darren
Clarke, Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood--the
European side is still casting for players who can fill the
supporting roles. "Both teams are so powerful at the top that
they almost cancel out each other's strength," says Torrance.
"It's the players at the bottom of the roster who can make the
Playing only his second tournament of the season, Torrance missed
the cut by a stroke in Portugal, but the disappointing result did
not diminish his appetites. Over a two-hour lunch on Friday,
Torrance drank a couple of glasses of wine, rolled a handful of
cigarettes and blew smoke on any number of subjects. No, he
hasn't read Ben Crenshaw's new book but is familiar with the most
incendiary passages--the allegations that the Europeans
deliberately slow-played the U.S. "I swear on the lives of my
three children that it didn't happen," said Torrance, a vice
captain in '99. "The whole story is a bunch of bull designed to
obscure what was inexcusable behavior on [the Americans'] part."
At that point the captain caught himself. "I don't want to go
through all of this again," he said with a wave of the hand.
"It's time to let bygones be bygones. There's no place in the
Ryder Cup for this rubbish. We need to get back to appreciating
the beauty of the competition."
Though neither Poulter nor Rose had his best fastball last week,
finishing 72nd and 53rd, respectively, the leader board was still
lovely in Torrance's eyes. Padraig Harrington's tie for second,
two strokes behind winner Phillip Price of Wales, shot him to No.
2 on the points list, all but guaranteeing his presence at the
Belfry. The rest of the top 10 is also shaping up nicely.
Westwood and Clarke are third and fourth, respectively, and
despite a slow start this season Colin Montgomerie should earn a
spot in his sixth straight Ryder Cup. Despite lengthy stints in
the U.S. earlier this season, Garcia (eighth) and Miguel Angel
Jimenez (10th) are still in line for automatic berths, and Jose
Maria Olazabal (16th) remains within shouting distance. "The team
is looking great," says Torrance. "Starting next week the
big-money tournaments begin over here, and then things will
really sort themselves out."
Meanwhile a couple of young Englishmen will continue to dream.
"We'd make a terrific foursomes team," Rose says, alluding to a
partnership with Poulter. "We know each other's games so well,
and we feed off each other."
"It's cool that the possibility even exists so early in our
careers," says Poulter, but he has a confession to make. Even if
he makes the team, it won't be his first Ryder Cup. He attended
the '93 match as a fan, camping with two friends near the Belfry,
which is only an hour's drive from Poulter's hometown. He still
has a treasured memento from that week, a ball that Montgomerie
pitched into the crowd. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself,"
Poulter says. "I mean, it wasn't that long ago that I was one of
those rascals chasing after balls on the 18th hole."
Now he's auditioning for a new role: the young rascal of the
European Ryder Cup team, one who hopes to have an even younger,
and very familiar, teammate.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Straight shooter Poulter, who turned pro while a teen and, at 25, has won twice, says he fears nothing. "I don't get nervous."
COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW REDINGTON/ALLSPORT
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN
Rose has come a long way since his pitiful start on tour in '98.
"The whole thing seems like a vague, hazy, weird memory," he
Says Torrance, "Anyone would want kids like them on his team.
They're not scared of s---. They want to take on the world."