Ian Poulter’s introduction to the U.S. Open occurred 14 years ago here at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, and let’s just say that he didn’t enjoy it very much.
He was almost certain he didn’t want to play in another one.
Good thing he kept coming back for more, even when the results suggested it was a futile gesture. Because he would have missed Thursday’s turn of fortune when he cobbled together a brilliant 1-under-par 69 in high winds to grab a share of the lead with Scott Piercy in the 118th U.S. Open.
The two men were the only players in the morning half of the draw to break par on a day when Shinnecock, strafed with strong northwest breezes, punished some of the more notable names in the field.
Poulter, 42, always has been a decent wind player, and that was obvious as he tacked his way around the sand-hewn layout amid what he called “high-stress” golf to shoot just his fourth round in the 60s in the championship.
“Obviously, I felt pretty good,” said Poulter, who birdied three of the hardest holes to offset two bogeys. “U.S. Open golf hasn't been good for me through the years. It's the first one I've played in three years, and this is the first one I ever played back in '04. So, to come here and enjoy the first round is really quite nice.”
The Englishman, known more for his Ryder Cup heroics and accompanying histrionics, has never finished in the top 10 in the U.S. Open in 12 starts. Only three times has he occupied the top 10 after any single round. His best finish was a tie for 12th in 2006 at Winged Foot.
But apparently, he reacts well to stress. Last year he nearly lost his PGA Tour card after dealing with a right foot injury in 2016. He managed to retain his playing privileges on a technicality and has made the most of his second chance, highlighted by his playoff victory over Beau Hossler in the Houston Open three months ago, which earned him the final spot in the Masters.
Now 27th in the world rankings, Poulter handled Shinnecock better than in 2004 when he shot 74-72 and missed the cut.
“He managed his game incredibly well. He did everything well,” caddie James Walton said.
But he was especially sharp playing the par-3 seventh and 11th holes. He nearly aced the latter with a 7-iron that grazed the hole before stopping 5 feet away. On the former, that famously treacherous Redan-style hole, he chose another 7-iron to the front of the green and sank a curling 20-foot putt that he estimated had 8 feet of break.
“I would take two 3s on those holes. To play them in four strokes is something,” he said.
Whether he can make something of the week remains to be seen. But he’s off to his best start in the championship, and he’s playing some of the best golf of his career.
“My game's good. I feel confident. I feel happy,” Poulter said. “I feel happy off the golf course. And that makes it a lot easier on the golf course. So, I'm in a really good, good place. I don't want to get carried away. This is day one of four extremely tough days, and three bad holes on this golf course can take you home pretty quick. So, it's a great start is what it is, but there's a very long way to go in this golf tournament.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.