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Poulter playing with renewed vigor after second chance at PGA Tour

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So what are the best storylines going into Sunday at the Players (1:15)

So what are the best storylines going into Sunday at the Players Championship? Michael Collins and Jason Sobel tell you! Video by Michael Collins (1:15)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Ian Poulter wasn't supposed to be here. Wasn't supposed to be at the Players Championship, wasn't supposed to be on the leaderboard and certainly wasn't supposed to be in contention for his first stroke-play victory on U.S. soil.

No, he'd already planned on spending this week "miserable at home" -- until he received the fortuitous news just two weeks ago.

This story has already made the rounds, but it will become the stuff of legend if Poulter can overcome a 3-shot deficit to win on Sunday. The annotated version: Brian Gay nearly lost his PGA Tour card, but instead only failed to make the Players field; once he investigated further, though, he found an inconsistency from the previous points system; when he raised that issue to the PGA Tour, not only did he gain entrance into this tournament, but it offered a stay of execution for Poulter, who'd previously believed he'd lost his card.

"It was a nice phone call to receive," Poulter admitted after a third-round 71, the only bogey-free round of the day. "I definitely feel better on the golf course for it."

Call it found money or new life or a get-out-of-jail-free card, but the sudden turn of events has shifted Poulter's mindset from trying to keep his career afloat to trying to build on this momentum.

Entering this week, he was ranked 197th in the world and hadn't posted a top-10 finish anywhere in more than a year. There's no other way to explain his current leaderboard status than to understand the weight lifted from his shoulders with that one phone call.

"I've definitely been obviously freer this week playing golf than I have in the last month, and I think it shows on the course," he explained. "I think it shows probably in my attitude on the course. It's a big deal."

Don't just ask him.

Poulter's family joined him at TPC Sawgrass for Saturday's round, providing even more fuel for that motivation. ("You don't want to be passing them on the way back home if you play bad," he said.) Surrounded by their four children, his wife Katie spoke about their recent turn of luck.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," she said. "It's been very hard watching him go through all of this. When he got the phone call and phoned me to tell me what had happened, it was fantastic news."

Why is Ian Poulter one of my favorite guys to interview after a round? Watch Poults start with a poke at me and end with an honest comment about his putting. He's now got a real chance to win The Players Championship on Sunday.

Michael Collins, ESPN Senior Writer

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Why is Ian Poulter one of my favorite guys to interview after

She has seen her husband at his best. She has seen him with eyes bulged halfway out of his skull after draining yet another Ryder Cup birdie. She has seen him methodically mowing down opponents in his match-play triumph and claim a dozen titles on the European circuit.

She has also seen him at his worst -- not just his performance, but his attitude toward the game in the dark days that followed the perceived knowledge of him losing his PGA Tour playing privileges. It took a toll on a man who always radiated passion toward the game.

And she has seen him this week, armed finally with renewed enthusiasm.

"I think he's kind of got the love for golf back again," she said. "It's been a tough few months, to be honest with you. Now he's got the sparkle back in his eye. It's definitely picked him up a bit."

Poulter has been called everything from irascible to irritable to insufferable. In a game that too frequently churns out brands of vanilla, his flavor might be best described as rocky road. He's the rare polarizing figure in golf, the man some fans love but perhaps even more fans love to hate.

Much of that stems from his Ryder Cup success -- you'd find more of the latter in Europe and more of the former in the U.S., of course -- but he owns a personality that can be considered abrasive at times.

It's that personality, though, that makes Poulter's presence a welcome sight on this weekend's leaderboard. The game is a better place with him, for the simple fact that his passion generates passion from the masses. There aren't many other players for whom we can make that claim.

Now that he has a PGA Tour card, he can focus on a few loftier goals in upcoming months. He wants to become exempt into the year's final three major championships. He wants to free himself up to play more European events. He wants to get himself into position to make next year's Ryder Cup team.

And yes, he wants to lock up his card for next year, so that he doesn't have to relive this situation all over again.

A victory at the Players would accomplish all of those things, affording a five-year exemption among its many perks. For a guy who wasn't even in this field two weeks ago, he's already thinking about this potential scenario.

"A win would be exceptionally nice," he acknowledged, "because then it changes things dramatically."