Howell out on his own after round of a lifetime

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The Independent Online

If any young English sporting superstar out there happens to be searching for inspiration on how to make a remarkable recovery from injury then he should look no further than his countryman David Howell.

By rights, Howell should be spread-eagled across a treatment table as the medics try to discover what exactly is wrong with his aching spine. Instead, he is spread-eagling the field at the most illustrious tournament on the European Tour, leading by three after a seemingly unfeasible 65.

To put his achievement in perspective, Howell's score was the best of a decidedly tricky day by three shots in a second-round where the average number was well above par.

"It was one of the finest rounds of my life," he said. In truth, this would have been one of the finest rounds of anybody's life, especially anybody who had to pull out of the previous week's event with continuing back pain, not to mention anybody who had competed just once since The Masters.

Howell, the biggest and most popular improver in world golf, continues to surprise - most off all, himself. "I was quite apprehensive going out there," he admitted. "The wind was gusting up and I didn't think I'd be sitting here with such an advantage."

When the 30-year-old bogeyed the third it must have been the furthest thing from his mind, but then eight birdies in the ensuing 15 holes brought his most prestigious success to date into giddying focus.

"This would be the biggest win, no doubt about it, bigger than beating Tiger [Woods] in China last year," he said. "I mean, this is the old PGA Championship. I'm not counting any chickens, though. Nick's in there behind me."

Indeed Nick Dougherty must have believed his 69 would be enough to lead the renamed BMW Championship, the so-called "Players' Flagship". In fact he would likely have sworn on his crystal ball about it.

"You know, I dreamt about this tournament last night," said the 24-year-old. "Yep, I won - it wasn't even a contest. On the last day I beat Luke [Donald]. I shot a 63 and he only shot a 70. I don't like my dreams to be too stressful down the stretch."

They will have to be if the Liverpudlian is to catch Howell, just as they will be for Donald whose first hole-in-one in competition promised so much on the 146-yard second but was to serve as little more than a safety net in a barely satisfactory 72 that left him six off the breakneck pace. Paul Casey is also on five-under, so even if Howell's spine creaks there is a bit of English backbone in behind.

Of all of the pursuers, however, Dougherty catches the eye and not simply because there is not a more dashing golfer. At last we are witnessing the emergence of the boy who has always had everything. At Sea Island in Georgia five years ago, Dougherty and Donald were the Walker Cup heroes all the experts were whispering about but while the latter has justified the hype, the former has merely mystified it.

"Why has Nick taken longer than me to come through? Well he is four years younger for a start and I did have that time in American college to prepare me," explained Donald. "But he's got every aspect of the game and it is only a matter of when he starts winning tournaments and goes on from there."

All the way to the Ryder Cup in September, if the wishes of Ian Woosnam come true. The European captain has long spoken of Dougherty as a player he wants and the wanted, himself, is aware what these next two days could mean.

"Not only would a win make me £481,000 richer but it would pretty much put me in the team," he said. "It would open up so many doors - America, majors, world rankings... but there's a long way to go." An exact measure of how long was soon provided by Howell.

* David Toms, the only world top 10 player taking part in the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis, yesterday moved into contention. Toms added a three-under-par 67 to his opening 69 and at four under had improved from 12th place to joint third, only two behind the overnight leader Chris Smith.