Six weeks after Rory McIlroy finished the US Open 16 under par and David Howell 10 over, it was a very different story at Killarney today.
Paired together for the third round of the Irish Open, world number 282 Howell fired a superb 64 in wind and rain to charge all the way from joint 25th into a tie for the lead with Simon Dyson and Richard Green.
But world number four McIlroy, whose record-breaking total at Congressional gave him his first major title by a massive eight strokes, dropped back to joint 32nd with a one-over-par 72.
The 22-year-old’s week now looks destined to be remembered only for ’Twittergate’ – his telling former European Tour player Jay Townsend – or “failed golfer” as McIlroy preferred to describe him – to “shut up” after criticism of his course management.
To the inevitable disappointment of the massive crowds, last year’s US Open champion Graeme McDowell could not force himself into the thick of the title action either.
On his 32nd birthday McDowell also managed only a 72 after resuming four under as well and described himself as “seriously confused” by the greens.
Howell, known as one of golf’s best putters when he was beating Tiger Woods head to head in 2005 and then leaving the rest for dead in the PGA Championship at Wentworth the following May, had no such problems.
So now the man who almost fell outside the world’s top 500 from ninth after that five-shot win in the Tour’s flagship event has a chance to end more than five nightmare years without a victory.
He would have led on his own had fellow Englishman Dyson not birdied the 17th and Australian left-hander Green the last, both for rounds of 67.
Scot Stephen Gallacher matched that score to move into fourth place, two shots behind, but halfway leader Marcel Siem double-bogeyed the 18th for a 73 and was joint fifth with defending champion Ross Fisher and Dane Soren Hansen three behind.
Howell, twice a Ryder Cup player before his slump, said: “I’ve not been in the best of form for quite some time, so I was intrigued how I was going to be playing with Rory.
“He’s the star of world golf, but there were no nerves and the crowds were amazing.
“I think I got inspiration from the big-time atmosphere. I did everything really well and it was great.
“I’ve given myself a chance – that’s the main thing – and I was delighted to hole a seven-footer (for par) on the last. Missing it would have been a sad way to end a flawless day.”
The 36-year-old from Swindon has only once scored better in his European Tour career, but also had a 64 on the opening day at Killarney last year.
“They’re my best two rounds in a year and three days,” he said. “While Rory was doing miraculous things at the US Open, I was absolutely shocking.
“We couldn’t have had more polar opposite weeks, but it led me onto a lot of thinking.
“It’s been a bit of a muddle for a few months, but finally last week I clicked on something that I thought was a sensible course of action in my swing thoughts.
“Nothing particularly major, but it cleared my mind a bit.”
While McIlroy had two shots on the beach by Lough Leane for an opening six – he also double-bogeyed the eighth – Howell parred the first four, then birdied the fifth and seventh and had five more in a spectacular inward 31 as the wind and rain turned worse.
McIlroy said: “I’m feeling as if I need a couple of drinks or something. It was a bad start, but I got it together at the end and one over is not too bad, considering.
“I’m happy that it’s going right rather than left. At least the club’s out in front of me instead of being behind and flipping it over.
“It’s an easy fix. It’s the ones that go left I don’t like.
“At this tournament you’re trying so hard to play well for not just yourself, but for everyone else. Sometimes you can just find yourself trying a little too hard and pushing a bit too much.”
Dyson, who finished ninth in The Open a fortnight ago after being called in as a reserve just before, now has a chance to climb back into the world's top 50 and qualify for this coming week's world championship in Ohio.
“I’m really excited,” said the York golfer.
“I don’t think the golf club has felt as good in my hand all year, so I’m looking forward to the last round.
“I always think that British golf fans are the best golf fans to play in front of, like the Open crowd, and they are proving me right.” British and Irish, he presumably meant.
Green stated: “I have a bit of a reputation of firing it up in the last round, so hopefully it happens tomorrow.”
Despite his position McDowell commented: “I’m very upbeat about the way I’m playing.
“I’m hitting a lot of quality-looking golf shots and I just need to clean everything up a little bit. It’s very close.
“I’ve gone from drawing the ball a couple of weeks ago to nearly fading the ball, so I need to really look at what my ball shape is right now.
“I’m hitting a great fade, but I’m a bit scared of the left side of the course and it shouldn’t be like that.”