False step by Howell puts rivals at risk

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The Independent Online

"Beware the injured golfer," goes the old saying in clubhouses everywhere, but they may wish to append to it "especially the one covered in steaming coffee" if David Howell prevails here in the British Masters.

The world No 16 will be just one of nine of the last European Ryder Cup team teeing it up in the first event of the European Tour's "British Swing" tomorrow and when he fell down a step at the end of yesterday's press conference, emptying a beaker of Kenco over himself in the process, it was easy to take him at his word that he has absolutely no chance this week.

"I've hit nothing more than a seven-iron for a month," he said, reflecting on the back problem that has kept him out since Augusta, "so I don't expect to compete with the boys who are healthy."

However, despite his warning, punters should not be put off backing the 30-year-old to win the first professional tournament at The Belfry for three years - and not simply because of the obvious form line that sees him a distance clear at the top of the Order of Merit. For if this injury-plagued competitor was a racehorse he would have that well-worn phrase "best when fresh" pencilled in next to his name.

Last year, for instance, Howell spent almost two months out with a torn stomach muscle before coming back to win first in Munich and then in Shanghai, where he beat someone by the name of Tiger Woods in a head-to-head. No wonder the unassuming lad from Swindon seems unfazed by this latest setback.

"It doesn't bother me as I just look at it as part of the game - some guys can't putt, I can't play long spells without injury," Howell said. "And although I missed some really big events last year [the Open at St Andrews being the biggest] I would not have swapped what happened last year.

"In fact, in a perverse way it might even have helped me. Sometimes a lay-off gives you a break from the daily grind and can be like having a blank piece of paper - you get the basics right again and go from there."

Fortunately for Howell there is no immediate pressure in the Ryder Cup race for him to return to the rostrum quickly. He is sixth in the race for the 10 automatic places, but £455,000 ahead of the 11th-placed Kenneth Ferrie.

"I'd be a lot more stressed over something bad happening if I was not in the position I am," he said, before toppling down the stairs.