- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Are professional golfers no longer allowed to strive for greatness? In the Tiger Woods Era, must the masses wallow in mediocrity, bowing down to the man who has beaten them so many times rather than standing up to the challenge?
The recent comments by Ian Poulter have us wondering just when the PGA Tour's new drug policy will start being enforced and whether ego-boosters are on the banned substances list. In case you missed it, Poulter told Golf World (U.K.) magazine, "Don't get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger."
My initial thought? Don't provoke the man. We all know the numbers -- Woods now owns 62 career PGA Tour victories and 13 major championships. When he's previously had a carrot dangled in front of him by a fellow player, Tiger has become even hungrier for results.
Last year, just days after Rory Sabbatini was paired with Woods in the final round of the Wachovia Championship and lost by four strokes, the plucky South African declared, "I think he's more beatable than ever." In response, Tiger seemed to take delight in the fact that he had already won three times in the season's first five months, while Sabbatini owned that many victories in his career. Two years ago, in advance of a first-round match against Woods in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Stephen Ames famously said of his opponent, "Anything can happen, especially where he's hitting the ball." The result was a thrashing by Woods, who won the match, 9 and 8. And five years ago, Phil Mickelson added fuel to the rivalry fire, telling Golf Magazine that Woods was playing with "inferior" clubs before giving the backhanded compliment that he had ''overcome the equipment he's stuck with.'' Later that week, Woods won the Buick Invitational.
But upon further inspection, we should note that unlike the comments of Sabbatini, Ames and Mickelson, Poulter meant no disrespect toward Woods. In fact, the Englishman went out of his way to praise the game's top-ranked player. "Tiger is one in a million," he said. "Actually Tiger is one in 10 million. He is extraordinary. If you look at the rankings he is almost two and a half times better than the guy in second place."
These comments have little to do with Woods' superiority and more to do with the confidence -- or shall we call it cockiness? -- of Poulter. Is that such a bad thing? Should the rest of the world's best golfers be content to play second fiddle rather than trying to compete at the same level as Tiger?
That said, this isn't exactly a guy whose past performances hint that he is knocking on Woods' door, ready to breakthrough as the next great player. Known for his spiked blond hair, outlandish wardrobes and steady, solid golf game, Poulter, 32, is currently 22nd on the Official World Golf Ranking. He owns eight career international victories, but none in three years on the PGA Tour. Since joining the U.S. circuit in 2005 (while splitting time on the European Tour, as well), Poulter has competed in 53 events, totaling 11 top-10s and a career-best T-2 at the WGC-American Express Championship two years, which, ironically enough, was played in his native England.
In 20 career major championship appearances, Poulter has never finished better than T-9 (at the 2006 PGA). He was paired with eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy in the penultimate grouping at the 2006 U.S. Open, but a final-round 74 left him in a share of 12th place.
And so it's not difficult to find the dissimilarities between Poulter's performances and that of Woods, who owns 62 career PGA Tour titles and 13 majors. In fact, we don't have to look very far to find a justifiable comparison. Just last week, as Woods marched toward a convincing eight-stroke victory at the Buick Invitational, Poulter may very well have been able to witness the performance from afar, considering a 75-73 result left him three strokes off the cutline at the Qatar Masters.
For the first time since last year's BMW Championship, in which Woods won and Poulter finished T-10, the two players will be included in the same field this week, when they each compete in the Dubai Desert Classic. If Poulter wants to put this recent attention-grabber to rest, he will need to do so on the course, in the form of top results when Woods is in the field.
Accompanying the magazine article was a provocative photograph of Poulter, posing stark naked, covered only partially by a hot pink golf bag. It should serve as a metaphor for the player. He's put himself out there for all to see. He will either come out looking prescient and precious, the next challenger to Woods' supremacy, or be exposed as someone whose action couldn't back up his words.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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