Peacock Poulter struts his way through a resurgent summer

Ian Poulter was back to his very best at Royal Birkdale on Thursday, with even playing partner Russell Knox commending his putting. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England -- Ian Poulter struts. That's the only way to explain his demeanor when he's playing well. He struts after knocking precise iron shots toward the hole, struts after making birdie putts from all angles. He is golf's version of a peacock with its tail feathers up, proudly boasting his way around the course.

And there he was strutting again on Thursday. He strutted after each of his four birdies, then strutted some more after completing a 3-under 67 in the first round of the 146th Open Championship -- whether he realized it or not.

"I didn't know I was a strutter," he'd later say with no hint of irony. He might be the only one unaware.

But the strutting didn't come easy this time.

This is Poulter's first major championship since last year's Masters. He's suffered through injuries and poor performance, enough to make him believe he might never again compete at this level, let alone contend.

"I've definitely had some low spots in the last 18 months," he admitted. "It's easy to be down when you feel you're a great player and all of a sudden you're hampered with a bit of injury. You're not getting the results you want. It's very easy to slide away.

"So I'm proud of the way I've been able to refocus, get things back on the straight and narrow, clear away some of the noise in the background and get back to really focusing hard on what I need to do to get the level of golf back that I think I can play."

This has been a summer of resurgence for Poulter. He appeared to have lost his PGA Tour status a few months back, only to regain it on a technicality found by another player, then parlayed that into a runner-up finish at the Players Championship.

He wasn't exempt into The Open, so he played in a qualifier at his old home club in Woburn a few weeks ago. Surrounded by a few thousand of his closest friends, Poulter earned a spot in this week's field, one which for years he might have taken for granted.

"A lot of people have come up and said not just, 'Well done for qualifying,' but, 'Well done for playing the qualifier,'" he reported. "It's something that you should do. If you're in a position to try and qualify for the best event in the world, then you should make the effort to go and do it. They are giving three spots away, and there is a great opportunity to get in this championship and obviously go on and hopefully win it."

He's in that position now, in the early going of this week, enjoying this full-circle rebirth. Nine years ago, he finished behind only Padraig Harrington here at Royal Birkdale. Last year, he played the role of commentator, wearing a suit and tie while analyzing the games of his peers.

For a player so often viewed as brash or even arrogant, it was a bitter pill to swallow. He hadn't missed a major in a decade, was once as high as fifth in the world ranking and had solidified his role as the darling of the Ryder Cup.

Then suddenly, just after turning 40, it was all fading away.

"I chose not to watch a lot of the golf, because it was too disappointing to watch TV," he said of the five majors he missed. "I tried to spend more time with the kids and enjoy that time rather than sit there and have disappointment on my face. It's too easy to get down when you're not playing those big tournaments -- and it's easy to get down when golf seems to be pretty difficult."

The game seemed easier for him on Thursday. His four birdies were offset by just a single bogey. His ball-striking was good, but his short game was great. He needed just 25 putts for the entire round, and playing partner Russell Knox called it the finest putting display he's seen all year.

And yes, that famous strut returned.

Poulter doesn't even know he struts, doesn't even know his body language offers an ultra-confident message when he's playing his best golf.

That's all right, though. He doesn't need to know it. Anyone watching can see for themselves, that self-assured walk telling us everything we need to know about his recent rejuvenation.