FOUR years ago, 3 Irish Open Championship leader David Howell was ranked the ninth best golfer on the planet, one of the heroes of the 2006 European Ryder Cup team that thrashed the USA and was seemingly destined to challenge for golf’s highest honours.
Early in 2007, however, he was blighted by a series of nagging injuries that contributed to a sudden and devastating loss of form that saw him gradually slip off the radar to such an extent that he was making a name for himself on the after-dinner speaking circuit — he is blessed with a superb dry and self-deprecating wit — and doing a gig or two with Sky Sports at the major championships.
While he insists that he never really thought about giving it all up, the frustration levels were rising. How could it be otherwise, given that before he came to Killarney, he was back to 479th in the world rankings, 117th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai order of merit, had missed 10 cuts in 19 tournaments with a best finish of tied 14th in the Ballantine’s Championship?
However, he recently saw light at the end of the tunnel when playing nicely in the JP McManus pro-am with signs that the work he was doing with coach Clive Tucker was beginning to pay off.
A seven under par at Killarney yesterday changed the perspective of the 35 year-old from Swindon, and made him hope that the heady days of 2005 and 2006 when he won both the HSBC Champions and BMW PGA Championship might not be a thing of the past. Birdies at the fourth, fifth and seventh had him out in 32, further gains followed at the 13th and 15th before a 30-footer for eagle at the 16th rounded off the round perfectly.
“It’s pretty hard to make cuts out here when you shoot 73 in the first round so it’s nice when you get off to a good start,” he pointed out.
“I’m back with my original coach Clive Tucker and working hard on some technique things. So it’s no surprise to me that I had a good round and obviously it’s very pleasant that it should be as low as 64. There were no dropped shots and I haven’t done that for a long. But I holed a few bombs today and also chipped in.”
Obviously it remains to be seen whether Howell can keep it going over the next three days and there will now be a new kind of pressure for him to try and deal with. But that’s something he gladly faces, given all he has been through.
“It’s crossed my mind that if I carried on playing as I did last year that I wouldn’t have a career to be worried about,” he admitted.
“Going to work and doing your job terribly every day, even if you have the best job in the world, is not a lot of fun. I never thought of giving up and I still have a lot of passion for the game. I might take three weeks off to try and get away from it at times but a week later I’m dying to get to the range again.”
Surely, I wondered, were those injuries he had back in ‘07 and ‘08 were a large part of the reason for the collapse of his game, but Howell isn’t one for making excuses.
“I could put it down to a very bad injury at the start of ‘07 and I had some fairly well-documented personal issues when I split up with my then girlfriend,” he said. “I wasn’t a happy person and added to playing rubbish, it was a pretty lonely, miserable time. I finally got around to sorting out my personal life in the last couple of years (he married Emily, a former member of the European Tour media staff). I can’t blame injuries for anything last year. This year, I’m in a good place and at a happy point in my life.”
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