Howell takes first steps on long journey back to form
Having suffered an alarming slump in the world rankings, David Howell is determined to fight back, as he tells Dermot Gilleece
T hough the timing made it all the more difficult, innate courtesy prompted David Howell to put on a brave face. The first-round leader of the 3 Irish Open had just signed for a thoroughly dispiriting 75 on Friday when he learned about the scoring exploits of Ross Fisher out on the course.
With two birdies from the last four holes, his compatriot would have shot a 59. "I had 59, but it was for 14 holes," Howell remarked wryly. The mood could hardly have contrasted more sharply with his humorous exclamation of "Shock! Horror!" when entering the media centre after a sparkling 64 on Thursday.
After plummeting from ninth to 479th in the world rankings in only four years, players in his position learn to live with false dawns. Still, the best competitive round he had carded in more than four years must have held out serious hope.
"Sure, I was looking to play a nice round of golf under par and still be in the lead," he admitted. "But four-over is not 81, is it? I've made the cut which gives me two nice days to crack on and finish right up there again."
There was also the bonus that his parents, Ray and Sally, could see their son on television once more, rather than comb the internet for his score. This is a player who outgunned Tiger Woods when capturing the HSBC Champions event in 2006, a year which also saw him become the first English winner of the BMW PGA Championship since Nick Faldo in 1989.
Then there was the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills where his memorable six-iron to the 17th was later chosen as European Shot of the Year. And he made an equally significant contribution to the victory at The K Club two years later.
"That's what really hurts: missing the Ryder Cup," he said. "I grew up with it, watching TV from the first shot on Friday morning in 1985. It was my passion when I turned pro. I wasn't someone who dreamed of winning majors or beating Jack Nicklaus's record. At 18, my aim was a career on tour and playing in the Ryder Cup would have been a fantastic thing. And I got there."
He went on: "Making the team was actually quite surreal. Being part of this television spectacle I was once glued to. Getting together in a team with other guys and experiencing the huge support. And to be winning, became all the more fulfilling, though a lot more stressful.
"While a few people might be happy if I won this week, they're more likely to be cheering for an Irishman. On a personal level, though I'm normally pleased when my friends play well, I'm still jealous it's not me. But in Ryder Cup week, you're all in it together. And that's such a rare experience. It's the only time when you get a football crowd really backing you and all your team-mates. Really wanting you to win."
Against that background, one can imagine his sense of dislocation while commentating for Sky TV at Celtic Manor next October. Yet he will still embrace it as a wonderful privilege. "Absolutely," he insisted. "Having played twice, I figured if I kept going I'd make the next one and I found it quite hard when it didn't happen. The passion seemed to seep away, just watching it. But being able to talk about it on TV is still a lovely thing."
While talking to this charming man, it is necessary to remind oneself that at 35, he is far from being a charity case. In 14 years on tour, he has amassed more than €10m in prize money, quite apart from lucrative contracts. Still, however healthy the bank balance, it was no fun going to work and, as he put it, doing your job terribly every day. "Even if you happen to have the best job in the world, it's not a lot of fun," he said.
Since 2006, when he finished third in the European Order of Merit and had top 20 finishes in the US Masters and US Open, there were injury problems and a troubled love-life before his marriage last year. But that's only part of the story.
"I just lost control of the golf ball and before I knew it, my game had disappeared," he said with crushing candour. "Though it's happened to many players over the years, I couldn't see it happening to me. But it did. Thankfully, my short game has always been strong and it remains pretty good. So I'm having to rely a lot more on it than in the past. I've never wanted to give up, but it crossed my mind that if I carried on playing as I did last year, I wouldn't have a career to be worried about, anyway."
In the meantime, did he find himself in a sort of in-between world of tournament golf and television work? "Not really," he replied. "People tend to think that, but I've done only four weeks of TV so far this year. It just so happened that two of them were majors, which draw very big audiences."
Was it a problem that he is perceived as being pretty good at it, not to mention after-dinner speaking? "Well, I was offered quite a few weeks by Sky this year, but I turned them down because that's not where my focus is at this point," he replied. "It's just a nice aside."
Jack Nicklaus famously remarked that not only was golf not a fair game; it was never meant to be fair. Howell smiled and behind the smile you sensed all the bad breaks of recent years were flashing through his mind.
"In any tournament, things happen that aren't particularly fair," he acknowledged. "Things go against you. I guess when things are going well, you don't notice it so much, like the good breaks I got here in Thursday's 64.
"But when you start playing poorly, it seems that fewer of those good things are happening. And we always talk about momentum and how, when it starts going the wrong way, it's very difficult to turn things around. And there's no magic answer. Any time I've spoken to a psychologist, we've both concluded after a very short time that the mental side is not my issue. In fact, I've always felt pretty good mentally out here."
As rivals here aspire to greater things, Howell is grateful simply to have made his third successive cut. Meanwhile, the practice ground beckoned. "It took a lot of work over a number of years to get me into the top 10 in the world," he said as a parting shot. "Now, that work has to continue."
Seeing him depart, you couldn't help wishing that a notoriously demanding game would somehow restore him to happier times.