Golf: From Swindon to Sydney

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: DAVID HOWELL
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The Independent Online
When David Howell appeared on the leaderboard during the Loch Lomond tournament last summer, the BBC commentary team struggled for inspiration. The best they could come up with is that Howell was from Swindon. "Diana Dors came from Swindon," Peter Alliss remarked.

If Howell appears on camera in the New Year, commentators will be able to point out that not only does he come from Swindon but also that he is the Australian PGA champion. Not that many people noticed at the time.

After finishing 32nd in the Volvo Ranking on the European Tour with nearly pounds 200,000, Howell spent a few weeks in Japan and Australia. Timing, particularly in golf, is everything and when Howell registered his maiden victory as a tour professional last month there was no brass band, no ticker-tape welcome in Wiltshire, no movement on the Richter Scale.

The weekend Howell chose to make his breakthrough coincided with Lee Westwood completing an unprecedented hat-trick in Japan, Nick Faldo and David Carter winning the World Cup for England in Auckland, Great Britain and Ireland taking the Eisenhower Trophy and Laura Davies winning in America. "It was a bit unfortunate," Howell said, "but it didn't bother me. My name's on the trophy."

Howell, a 23-year-old stable-mate of Westwood's with Chubby Chandler's management group ISM, had his most lucrative year on the European Tour. It included his best finish, joint runner-up to Westwood, Europe's Player of the Year, at Loch Lomond in July.

The week before competing in Australia, Howell played in Japan. "I'd been playing terribly at the end of the season and then something clicked. I bought a new putter, found a good stroke and I was swinging well."

The Australian PGA is played at the New South Wales club in Sydney, a course Howell had familiarised himself with the previous two years. A 69 in the first round made him joint leader and a 66 in the second put him two strokes clear.

"The wind was quite strong for the first two rounds but then the most bizarre thing happened. Conditions were much easier for the third round and I shot a level-par 72. I thought I'd be overtaken but nobody made a move. Unbelievably, I went further ahead." On the final day, Howell had four birdies and 14 pars, scored 68 and won by seven shots. "There was no pressure coming down the stretch and I was able to enjoy it although there was almost a slight feeling of anti-climax in that I didn't have to hole a 10-footer for victory at the last."

When Howell, who won pounds 45,000, returned to his hotel in Coogee Bay he threw a party. "There were some other British golfers, caddies and some people from Swindon who had emigrated to Australia. We had a great night. It was a job fulfilled." A few days later he travelled to Brisbane to watch the first two days of the First Test.

On his return to England, Howell, who lives with his father, a furniture maker, sprained an ankle playing tennis and he has been hobbling about on crutches. He has been receiving treatment from the physio at his beloved Swindon Town football club.

Howell first started to play golf at six during a family holiday to Spain and joined Broome Manor, a local municipal course, at nine. "By doing little jobs, like picking up balls on the practice ground, I could play very cheaply. Youngsters are encouraged. It's a good policy."

Howell won the British Boys' Championship in 1993 and two years later played a leading role, with two and a half points out of three, in Great Britain and Ireland's triumph in the Walker Cup over the United States, Tiger Woods et al, at Royal Porthcawl.

"I'd half made my mind up not to turn pro that year and then I thought, `Sod it. I'll give it a go.' It's gone unbelievably well. My goal in the New Year is to finish in the top 15 in Europe, which would get me into the majors. It's a nightmare having to watch big events in America on television."