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David Howell's Heart Warming Comeback

Dermot Gilleece on the gentleman golfer's dunhill links success

Posted Oct 02, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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After bogeys from Shane Lowry on the 13th and 15th holes on Sunday had allowed me to rid myself of my Irish bias, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome of the Dunhill Links Championship.  Victory for a golfing gentleman, which David Howell undoubtedly is, invariably brings a glow to the heart.

In any sporting pursuit, it is always difficult to lose graciously.  Tougher still is to maintain a gracious exterior when golf has been driving you to distraction, over an extended period of time.  And most difficult of all is to continue to put on a brave face when you have known the sweet taste of success at a very high level.  In the course of 2006, his finest season, Howell had scaled some interesting peaks, notably in capturing the HSBC Champions tournament, the BMW PGA Championship and as a member of the victorious European Ryder Cup team at The K Club.   

The genial Englishman was in the middle of what proved to be a lengthy slump when our paths crossed during the 2010 Irish Open at Killarney.  As the first-round leader, Howell had just signed for a thoroughly dispiriting 75 when I approached him on the Friday.  Root-canal treatment would probably have seemed more appealing to him at that moment, yet innate courtesy won the day, and I got my interview.

In only four years, he had plummeted from ninth to 479th in the world rankings, while learning to live with a seemingly endless sequence of false dawns.  And by way of counting his blessings, he looked at surviving the cut as a bonus for his parents, Ray and Sally, who would be able see their son on television over the weekend, rather than comb the Internet for his score. This was the player who had outgunned Tiger Woods when capturing the HSBC event.  And two years prior to that, he was in the triumphant 2004 Ryder Cup team at Oakland Hills where his memorable six-iron to the 17th was later chosen as "European Shot of the Year."    

Knowing that he had no chance of making the 2010 team for Celtic Manor, he said:  "That's what really hurts: missing the Ryder Cup. 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.”

Against this background, one could imagine his sense of dislocation while commentating for Sky TV yet, typically, he embraced it as a privilege.  "Absolutely, but it was never anything more than a nice aside," he insisted.  Then, with crushing candour, he went on: "I just lost control of the golf ball and before I knew it, my game had disappeared. Though it's happened to many players over the years, I couldn't see it happening to me. But it did, though the one good thing through it all was that my short game remained strong.”

He finished 2010 a very modest 96th in the Race to Dubai.  A year later, he had slipped further down the table to 103rd and dared not read too much into a significant improvement last year, when he rose to a heartening 62nd.  Patient application to his craft eventually brought its reward, however, over no less a venue than the Old Course at St Andrews, where colleagues who enjoyed his company and insight on the other side of the TV cameras, were now considering with mixed feelings, an extended absence for Howell from the television booth.

With some of the more talented prayers behaving like over-indulged and thoroughly spoiled children, golf-writing these days can often be a decidedly trying exercise.  Which is why the comeback by Howell on the game’s most hallowed stage, was so wonderfully welcome.  It is to be hoped that this time, he is back for the long haul, even to the point of a Ryder Cup comeback at Gleneagles next year.

- Dermot Gilleece

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