1 for the ages

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --It's the type of fantasy that usually happens when your eyes are closed. Maybe in bed late at night, fast asleep and dreaming. Or maybe on the couch, visualizing success with your favorite sports psychologist.

When it finally happened - Holy Ghost of Hogan! A hole-in-one at the Masters! - you bet Ian Poulter's eyes were wide-open. And now, just maybe, so are everyone else's. Thanks to his ace on the 16th hole, Poulter finished yesterday's opening round of the Masters just two shots off the pace.

When you envision victory at the Masters, you've got to be wearing green, and sure enough, Poulter was for the opening round. Sort of. His first-round ensemble included pants, sun visor and shoes, all a light green color - "Pistachio," he said - that seemed better suited for an ice cream freezer than a golf course.

As exciting as the ace itself was, Poulter's opening-round performance is worth discussing for a couple of marginal reasons:

It's about time the Englishman draws some attention with a club, instead of his mouth or his wardrobe.

This week he just might be recasting his recent controversial statements in a slightly different light. Could yesterday's Words from a Fool be tomorrow's Prophecy of Mr. Bright Pants?

It was just a snippet of an interview, just a morsel of a thought. But the golf community treated it like John Lennon comparing the Beatles to Jesus. When Poulter, winner of zero PGA Tour events, finally plays to his potential, "it will be just me and Tiger," he told the British version of Golf World magazine, which sparked a string of January headlines. (Here's one example: "Poulter says he's the only golfer who can challenge Woods," ESPN.com blared.)

If such confidence was uttered by a wide receiver, a heavyweight contender or a spry shooting guard, we wouldn't bat an eye. Because it was Poulter, the British tabloids and stuffy golf observers emptied barrels of lighter fluid on the Technicolor dream bloke.

Just him and Tiger? Unfortunately for Poulter, not on most days.

Poulter and Woods were born just 11 days apart. They burst on the scene as young guns with heaping amounts of expectations, both concerned with style as well as substance. But from their bank accounts to their closets, the golfers couldn't be more different.

When Woods hits a big shot - such as yesterday's chip-in eagle on No. 15 -- he's a soda can shaken to the brink of explosion. The emotion's there, but it's all clinched tightly in his fist. About an hour earlier, Poulter was standing on the 16th tee box. He whipped around that 8-iron and knew instantly it had a chance. One-hundred sixty-nine yards away, the ball hit the green, rolled 25 yards and disappeared into the cup for just the 19th ace in the 72-year history of the tournament.

Back on the tee box, Poulter's fist of emotion burst open. High-fives for everyone. He swallowed the roar from the crowd, let it swirl in his stomach and spat it back out. Poulter even cupped his hands around his ears, a la Hulk Hogan, begging for more, inviting everyone into his celebration. "It's not often you get to be in that position," he said later. "You want it to keep going."

He said it was the biggest adrenaline rush he'd ever had. "Massive, unbelievable buzz," he said.

It's a scene missing from most tournaments. Not just because aces are a treasured rarity, but also because golf so often trips over its rules, its self-importance and its snobbery that the fun is nearly choked out of special moments.

When the golf world was aghast over Poulter's words about him and Tiger, they surprisingly glossed right over the photo that accompanied the article (of Poulter posing naked, covered by only his golf bag) and predictably right by his bigger point - Woods is in a world of his own and the rest of the tour is trying to be No. 2. And Poulter hopes to occupy that position someday.

"Quite frankly, there's nobody in the same bracket as [Woods]. He is that good," Poulter said yesterday. "And while he has got a golf club in his hand, I don't think anybody is going to knock him off that No. 1 spot."

Despite the initial furor, some of the players got a kick out of the comments. When Woods sees Poulter, he says, "Hey there, No. 2." And Poulter, of course, responds with, "Hey there, No. 1." They share a laugh, both knowing just how much separates the two.

Lined side by side, the distance between the No. 1 golfer and No. 2 is the same as the distance between No. 2 and No. 1,000, Poulter says. And while Woods has four Augusta National green jackets hanging in his closet, Poulter's preferred shade of green seems inspired by a bag of Skittles.

He was asked yesterday whether he has worn that Masters green. "No," he said, "but I'd quite like to."


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