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Another round for Westwood, Poulter

Saturday, April 10, 2010

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Gentlemen, please, it's time. The traditional last call of the British pubs might rattle through the pines of Augusta National Golf Club this weekend.

Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood could be the toast of England if they end the drought that has plagued that nation's golfers for 14 years.

"There was a lot of talk before this tournament that the English guys are in good form, and they certainly are, and we are sitting at the top of the leaderboard now," Poulter said after his second consecutive 68 on Friday.

With eight English golfers in the field ranked 76th or better in the world, there were high hopes that someone would Nick Faldo at the table for next year's Champions Dinner. The two most likely to succeed have delivered on the promise at the halfway point.

"We're not up at the top of the world rankings by mistake, you know," Westwood said. "We ought to be contending in these major championships in these biggest events where the best players should contend."

Westwood and Poulter -- ranked Nos. 4 and 7 in the world, respectively -- will be in the final pairing today, trying to stay ahead of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson among a crowd tied for third just two shots behind. It should be as comfortable as it can be for friends vying for a career-defining victory.

"Have a bit of fun and a bit of an English rivalry," said Poulter, who prevailed already this year in an all-England final at the World Golf Championship-Match Play over Paul Casey. "He took a few dollars off me the other day, so I would like to get some back tomorrow if that's the case."

Said Westwood: "He would remember that. Every pound is a prisoner to him."

Today, however, will be mostly business.

"Well, we won't be cracking jokes on each other's back swings," Westwood said.

There is a growing tide of pressure on an Englishman to deliver something that hasn't happened since before Woods turned pro just months after Faldo's sixth and final major at the 1996 Masters. The focus falls on the group with a wide-angle lens instead of a tight zoom.

"It spurs the group on," Poulter said. "I think it's good to have it as a group rather than one individual. If it's one individual you can overload that person, but the fact that it is a group you can kind of spread that out and it helps the group along."

Westwood agrees, though he is the veteran with 17 years of professional experience and the most major contentions and is the cover boy of the European Tour media guide as last year's leading money winner, a status he held in 2000, too.

"I'm not that much older; I've just been around a long time," said Westwood, 36. "It disperses the pressure a little bit more evenly rather than one person sort of shouldering all of the responsibility. But it's a very individual game, and I've learned that over the years and I really just kind of take care of myself now, what I'm doing."

Westwood has been here before. He had a chance to make putts at both the 2008 U.S. Open and 2009 British Open that would have earned him berths in playoffs. He also tied for third at last year's PGA and fourth at the 2004 British. At Augusta, Westwood led entering Amen Corner on Sunday in 1999 only to fade to sixth.

"That's the first time I had ever experienced a lead in a major championship, so it's bound to come as a bit of a shock," he said.

Westwood's more ready now.

"It's the only thing really missing in my career," he said of winning a major. "I know I've got the game and I know I've got the temperament. It's just going that one step further and finishing it off."

Poulter, 34, seems to have taken a big step forward since rallying to finish runner-up at the 2008 British Open. Earlier that year, he had created a stir by discreetly posing nude on a magazine cover and stating his goals to ascend to No. 2 in the world behind Woods.

Now with a stateside title and top 10 ranking to bolster his major bid this week, has Poulter vindicated himself?

"Sure, if I win this week, I'll probably go No.  2, which would be lovely," he said. "So I guess it's a workinprogress."

That same could be said for his Masters progress. Though he hasn't missed an Augusta cut in six starts, it took him 12 rounds here to break par, and he has matched his career total of rounds in the 60s already this week.

"I think I've learnt the golf course over the last six years, and to a degree, where I feel very comfortable out there hitting certain shots," he said. "There's a lot of shots that I didn't feel I was very comfortable pulling off six years ago, but certainly I am now. I am more aggressive on the golf course and you have to be aggressive to your targets around this place. You can't let this course intimidate you too much, because you'll back away from the shots you should be taking on."

Counted among the favorites for the first time, Poulter hasn't shied away.

"I like that it's going to put a bit of pressure on me," he said of the attention. "It's going to make me focus."

He is where he envisioned years ago when he worked in a golf shop.

"To be playing Augusta was in my dreams, and to be sitting at the top of the leaderboards was in my dreams as well," Poulter said. "So hopefully we can have a good weekend and be in a similar situation come Sunday night."

While Westwood isn't one to make fashion statements (wearing the same color blue sweater on consecutive days), Poulter's bold clothing choices make you wonder what might look best with a green jacket.

"Absolutely anything," Poulter said.

So this is the moment for the English lads. They've both paid their dues and been in the hunt on major weekends before. Now there's a chance to live up to all the expectations of a nation.

"Who knows?" Poulter said. "Will it be chips or jacket spuds?" Translation: french fries or baked potatoes for the Champions Dinner.

Drain the pints, gentlemen. It's time.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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