There are some interesting ways of assessing the remarkable progress made by David Howell, the former journeyman golfer now in the world's top 10, these past couple of years. One came in the form of an invitation to sit in the royal box on Centre Court, on the middle Saturday of this year's Wimbledon.
As it happens, Howell couldn't make it, so he passed on the invitation to Mr and Mrs Ernie Els. But that alone - "Can't make the royal box, Ernie, maybe you and Liezl would like to take my place?" - indicates just how far this hugely likeable man from Swindon has come.
Whether or not a certain Nick Faldo thinks him hugely likeable, however, is worth pondering, and leads me to another story showing what heady heights Howell now occupies, as well as illustrating his coruscating wit. During the Royal Trophy in Bangkok in January, some of the guys were teasing Faldo for his failure, so far, to be awarded a knighthood. Why did he think he hadn't had the call from the Palace offering him a K? Faldo said he didn't know why. "I know why," interjected Howell, whose girlfriend at the time worked for the Queen's private secretary. "Oh yeah, why?" asked Faldo. "Because," said Howell, "Her Majesty thinks you're a cunt." After a second or two sizing up the degree of shocking irreverence towards Britain's greatest living golfer and indeed the 2008 Ryder Cup captain, those present collapsed in laughter. But how, I ask Howell, did Faldo take it? "He took it well," he says, with a grin. "He treated me just as well as he did before." Which is to say, not particularly well? "You said that, not me. But I certainly wouldn't have come out with that line three years ago. I feel I can look anyone in the eye now and come out with my own sense of humour."
Howell has even looked into the eye of the Tiger and come out on top by three shots. The pair went head-to-head at the HSBC Champions Trophy in Shanghai last November, and Howell emerged comfortably the winner. That's when the world of golf sat up and took notice, not that Howell had trembled in the slightest as he strode on to the first tee and into the presence of the great man. "I've known Tiger for years. We played Walker Cup together, and we've played together maybe five times since. So there's a bit of history, and we're the same age, although ..." - a pause, and another grin - "his career's slightly more impressive than mine. He's a nice guy to play with, actually. He plays at a nice pace, and he's very courteous. In some ways he's not the most intimidating person to play with."
Which begs the question: who is? "I'm not the world's strongest mentally. I've buckled under pressure like a lot of the guys. But I don't find anyone intimidating, to be honest. I probably wouldn't have beaten Tiger if I'd not won in Germany the year before, though. My career was improving but I still wasn't getting over the winning line, and I lost two play-offs in a row early last year. I needed to get that monkey off my back, and I finally did it in Germany, in the best way, by one shot. Now, I'm self-assured enough no matter what the situation to know that if I'm playing well, I can win."
So, if Howell finds himself walking down the 18th at Hoylake as the shadows start to lengthen on Sunday afternoon, at the top of the leaderboard alongside Woods or Phil Mickelson, then he won't get jittery? "Well, it wouldn't matter who I was playing with, Tiger or anyone else. After all, it's not tennis or boxing. He's only got to play his ball, and I've got to play mine. What would be intimidating would be the chance to win the Open. Tournaments are intimidating. People aren't."
A chance to win the Open would be a novel experience for the 30-year-old Howell, who, for all his recent success, including a majestic win by five shots at this year's PGA Championship, has never prospered in the hunt for the claret jug. And the indications are that this year might be no different. We are talking in his lochside cabin before the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond where Howell will subsequently struggle to find his form, complaining that he is hitting the ball worse than he has for 12 months.
None the less, Hoylake might just rediscover the best in him. And his best, as he has said, is these days usually good enough to win. "I probably know the course as well as anyone," he tells me. "I played the British amateur there in '95 and lost in the quarter-finals to Gordon Sherry, and I've played a couple of company days there. I went there again last week to have another look. It's good. And it's rock hard, just how the R&A would want it."
Does he enjoy playing links golf, with all the vagaries of wind and bounce? "I used to enjoy it as an amateur, but my record at the Open is appalling - 45th is my best, I think - so I'd have to say no. Which is a bit of a bummer, considering it's the world's biggest event. I need to buck my ideas up. But generally at this stage of the year I'm trying to get into the Open, so at least that's not a problem. My first Open was at Troon in '97 and that pretty much summed up my Open experiences. I was five under through nine on the second day to get on to the bottom rung of the leaderboard, then I came back in seven over to miss the cut. That's how my Opens have gone. I was doing well at Birkdale one year, even leading briefly, then I had a disastrous run of holes."
Howell says all this so cheerfully that it is hard to imagine such tribulations penetrating his good nature. Not for nothing is he one of the most popular players on tour, where he is affectionately known as "Howler", although there are also those who refer to him as "Dangerous Dave", given his propensity, which Faldo can confirm, for uttering whatever cheeky quip comes into his head. As for his public image, there isn't yet much of one, which is odd. He ranks ahead of Luke Donald, Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke, making him Britain's best golfer despite his wobbly form; he is good-looking, articulate and approachable; yet his fame has not reached even the bottom deck of the Clapham omnibus.
Howell puts this down to the way his career has evolved. "If I'd only recently come on to the tour then I'd be seen as the great new hope, but I've steadily got better over the last decade. Nobody really thought of me as a top player, but I seem to have become one."
The watershed came in 2002 after he'd broken his arm; even when he started swinging again, he didn't threaten any leaderboards for a year. "That's when I changed my coach, employed a chiropractor and a fitness trainer, and ended up with an entourage of people helping me to play better golf. I also changed my lifestyle and became more work-orientated. With my girlfriend at the time I moved from Swindon to Surrey, and joined Queenwood Golf Club which has great practice facilities. So instead of having lunch with my mates on a Monday and maybe playing a bit of pool in the garage in the afternoon, I'd be on the range with my coach, or in the gym with my personal trainer."
He duly muscled his way into the 2004 Ryder Cup team, and will be one of Ian Woosnam's strongest assets at the K Club in September. "As soon as I finished the last one, I made it my goal to get into the next one. The whole Ryder Cup experience was fantastic. Normally I would be here with you guys watching it on telly with some chocolate biscuits and having a fun three days. It's fun to play in, too, it's just that there's also plenty of anxiety and stress. But I loved every minute of it."
This year, unusually, an American win would constitute something of an upset. And that, says Howell, might just suit them. "My theory on why Europe keeps winning is that for us, the idea of beating the stars of the US tour has always been very exciting. But it didn't work the other way round. Davis Love or Jim Furyk were not excited by the prospect of beating David Howell in the singles. This year will be different. The US team might have five rookies in it, and we might be favourites even on paper. So in that sense there could be a role reversal. Some of those American guys are not well-known names but they can play."
And in David Howell, No 10 in the world, they will see a scalp worth taking. "I never thought I would get to 10th in the world," he says. "In fact I was up to ninth for a while. So if I never achieve anything else, I'd like to think I could give myself a pat on the back for that. That's not to say I'm satisfied, but whether I'm just coming to my peak or whether I can get better I just don't know. I'm not someone who ever dreamed I would be good enough to win a major, to be honest. But now I believe that if I play my best golf for four days then I will have a good chance. I don't strike the ball as well as Tiger or Darren Clarke, but at my best I strike it as well as most, and from 140 yards in I'm pretty much as good as anyone. It was nice pitching up at the US Open this year not feeling completely out of my depth, and I came back having finished 16th feeling a little disappointed, which was a good sign."
At Hoylake, 16th place would be comfortably his best finish in an Open, and yet - his grumbles about his form notwithstanding - that would be a disappointment, too. Yet the big question now, and another indication of Howell's progress, is not whether he can finish eighth or third in an Open but whether he really can win the thing. And if not this major, then another major? In a sense, I venture, he has reached a crossroads: he is already a very good golfer, but from now on his record in the four major championships will determine whether he ever is considered great.
"Yeah, well, I've still only ever won four tournaments, so you've got to see things in perspective. If in five years' time I'm still in the world's top 10 but haven't had the chance to win in a major with nine holes to play, then I suppose I will feel disappointed. But I don't know whether majors are definitive of a great career. Monty's had a great career, without winning one. And [the 2003 champion] Ben Curtis, bless him, has just won again in America, but he could have won the Open and done nothing else ever for 20 years. Would he rather end up with 20 tour victories and not have won the Open? It's hard to say, isn't it?" It is, but I think we both know the answer.Reuse content