PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Ian Poulter tends to play some of his best golf on Sunday in a major.
It's the 54 holes leading up to the final round that have kept him from being a serious threat on any big stage except the Ryder Cup.
"I guess I just haven't been close enough come Sunday morning," Poulter said Wednesday at the PGA Championship. "I've had three good runs at it now, and every time I've just been a couple of shots away. I have to look into the early part of each of those weeks and say I've made mistakes at the wrong time."
Poulter, the star of Europe's comeback win in the Ryder Cup last year at Medinah, has not been particularly close to winning a major when the scores are tabulated. He tied for the third at the PGA Championship a year ago, though he was nine shots behind Rory McIlroy.
He was runner-up to Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in the 2008 British Open by four shots. And at the British Open last month at Muirfield, he was four shots back of Phil Mickelson in a tie for third.
Those are his only top-3 finishes in the majors. In each case, it was his golf leading up to Sunday made it tough on the Englishman. He was six shots behind going into the '08 British Open and last year's PGA Championship, and he was eight shots behind going into the last round at Muirfield.
He still managed to make it exciting, if only for a short time.
Poulter was closing in on Harrington at Royal Birkdale, making a clutch par on the 18th hole that he thought might be enough for a playoff. Harrington had to hit a 5-wood into about 5 feet on the par-5 17th for an eagle that put him away.
And while McIlroy won by a record margin last year at Kiawah Island, Poulter began that final round with six birdies in seven holes to pull within two shots. He ran off three straight bogeys on the back nine to end that threat.
The British Open at Muirfield was up for grabs, and Poulter jumped into the mix with a series of birdies and one eagle. He just couldn't sustain it, and Mickelson was at his best that day. Mickelson's closing 66 is regarded as one of the best final rounds in a major. Poulter had a 67 that day.
"So it's about me staying focused for 18 holes and trying not to make those silly mistakes, and trying to find myself in a better position come Sunday morning," Poulter said. "So when I have got those opportunities and chances, then I'm not four or five back and really hoping the guys up in front falter. It's about me getting myself in position come Sunday afternoon into the back nine and see if I can just press forward."
Oak Hill presents the next opportunity for Poulter, and the last chance for everyone in the majors this year. It would not seem to set up well for Poulter with such a high demand of ball-striking. His best work is around the green, though he should be comforted that the best winning score was 6-under 274 (by Jack Nicklaus) in the five previous majors held at this Donald Ross design.
Not so comforting is his last time around this course — he tied for 61st in the 2003 PGA Championship, never posting better than a 72 and closing with a 79.
The next three days are critical for Poulter.
"I'd like to be 10 clear to be honest with you," he said. "It would make the job a lot easier. Always being a few shots back is always a difficult position to be in. And chasing on major golf courses is not easy. ... I would have a better chance if I play better on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday and I've got my nose in front. I think my stats have probably proven that when my nose is in front, I've played very well, and often I've been able to finish the job off.
"I'd like to find myself in that position a bit more often on a Saturday night, because it will stop these gray hairs coming through."