SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — Ian Poulter strolled quickly toward the parking lot at Royal Birkdale, his wife and their two young kids tailing along. Off in the distance, they were still cheering for Padraig Harrington as he posed with the claret jug on the 18th green under a slowly setting sun.
As he zigzagged between the vehicles, Poulter suddenly challenged his children — 6-year-old Aimee-Leigh and 4-year-old Luke — to a race. They sprinted toward the car, daddy getting there first.
Poulter threw up his arms, dancing around giddily before they all piled in.
Hey, who says he wasn't a winner Sunday?
Nattily dressed and groomed as always, Poulter made his most sustained run yet at fulfilling the lofty expectations he has of himself, most notably spelled out when he was quoted as saying there was no reason he couldn't be No. 2 in the world behind Tiger Woods if he played to his full potential.
Plenty of people were amused at Poulter's bravado, especially since he's known more what he pulls out of the closet — he went with the peach-colored slacks on this day — than what he pulls out of the bag. Sure, he had eight victories around the world, but none on the PGA Tour. And he never finished higher than ninth in a major.
Maybe everyone will stop snickering now. Poulter finally showed a game to justify all the flash.
He was No. 2 at the British Open, sending the English galleries into a frenzy as he made a charge that briefly brought him into a tie with Padraig Harrington. Alas, the Irishman played brilliantly down the stretch, with two birdies and an eagle on the last six holes to win going away.
But Poulter, who matched Harrington with a 1-under 69 on a blustery, brutal course in the pressure cooker of a major championship, proved he might just be worthy of that high opinion he has of himself.
"I've known that I can perform and I can play good," Poulter said. "I guess I'm just trying to let that come out in me. You know, I've certainly put in a decent show today. There's plenty more in me, and I know I can go better. On that side of it, yeah, I'm fairly happy how I've played today, and I'll take a lot of confidence from that."
Poulter started the final round six shots behind leader Greg Norman, and didn't appear to be much of a factor when he bogeyed two of the first three holes. But the 32-year-old Englishman steadied himself in the howling breeze, stringing together four straight pars, then pumped up the home crowd by rolling in a birdie at No. 9.
With Norman fading and Harrington going through a stretch of three straight bogeys, Poulter's name began to climb the leaderboard. He made another birdie at No. 11, then sent up a roar that could be heard all the way to Liverpool when he made an 18-footer for birdie at the 16th.
The ball rolled toward the cup, pulled right up to the edge as though it was going to stop, then dropped in with one final turn. Poulter let out a scream and pumped his fist several times. At that very moment, he was tied for the lead with Harrington, who was playing five groups back with Norman in the final twosome.
"I thought right then," Poulter said, "I had a good chance to win."
Harrington heard the cheers and knew who was making a move. He didn't let it shake him, though.
"When I was walking down 10, I heard ... a cheer and somebody shouting, 'Go on, Poulter,'" the eventual winner would say afterward. "First of all I thought, 'Oh, he must be going well,' and then I just put it to the back of my mind. I stayed focused on what I was doing."
He would go on to strike a brilliant 5-wood at the par-5 17th. When the ball stopped just 5 feet from the cup, Poulter — watching in the clubhouse — knew his chances of winning were nil. Harrington swiped it in for eagle, giving himself a hefty cushion going to the final hole.
All Poulter could do was watch the triumphant walk up the 18th fairway.
Maybe things would have been different if he had scored better at the 17th, as well as the other par-5 on the course, No. 15. Harrington played them at 3 under. Poulter could only manage a couple of pars, including a three-putt on the next-to-last hole, halting his comeback in its tracks.
Even when he rolled in a 15-footer to save par at No. 18, setting off one more big roar, it wasn't nearly enough. Harrington won with a 3-over 283, four shots ahead of Poulter.
But the runner-up had no complaints.
"It was great buzz around the whole back nine," Poulter said. "I don't think I've enjoyed a week as much as I have this week. It's on home soil, the crowd has been absolutely awesome, they've been driving me on."
"To start holing putts around the back nine," he went on, "to hear everybody screaming and shouting and driving you on is a massive adrenaline rush, a massive boost."
So, here's a guy who believes he can be No. 2 and claimed that spot at golf's oldest championship, even if Woods was back home in the States recovering from knee surgery. With his gelled-up hair defying the stiff breeze and a narrow line of whiskers running from the bottom lip down to the end of his chin, Poulter headed toward his car — signing a few autographs along the way, taking in "Well done, Ian" a few more times.
"I've done my best," Poulter said. "It hasn't quite been good enough. But I'll be back for lots more of this. It's a nice roller-coaster ride."