A little over 18 months ago when David Howell rose to his career high of world No 9, everyone in golf agreed that here was a chap just too damn nice to be up there slugging it with the self-obsessed and the driven. Now, with him ranked 185 in the world, everyone in the game agrees that here is a chap just too damned nice to be down there wallowing with the has-beens and the never-will-bes.
No, the Englishman cannot win and it seems he cannot lose either. It is, therefore, not quite the surprise it might be to find him, in the midst of such a crazy existence, making it his unprecedented mission to laugh his way right back to the top. "What's the point in being miserable," Howell tells you. "It's not such a bad life even when you are hitting it sideways."
The 32-year-old has always cast a refreshing light on the ever-greying fairways of the modern game. Even during his pomp of not so very long ago, the dual Ryder Cup winner would have been the first to admit that if the perfect professional had the self-belief of Ian Poulter, the talent of Tiger Woods and the tunnel vision of Nick Faldo, then the imperfect one would have the self-belief of David Howell, the natural talent of David Howell and the tunnel-vision of, er, David Howell.
The Swindon lad is to bravado what John Daly is to abstinence, possessing that rarest of sporting gifts – humility. Mix that in with the mischievous sense of humour that has earned him the locker-room moniker of "Dangerous Dave" and you have the best bloke on Tour. And by far and away the most popular,.
It is one of many contradictions about Howell that in terms of public recognition he is as high-profile now as when winning Europe's flagship tournament at Wentworth, the PGA Championship, in May 2006. While he never really threatened to burst into the mainstream on the back of that stunning five-stroke success, or indeed after his first contribution to the Europe team's cause when winning the "Shot of the Year" for a fearless, match-defining six-iron in the 2004 Ryder Cup waltz at Oakland Hills, he did procure something of a cult following. Well, that cult is growing by the day and that is all down to the diary he writes on his webpage.
To say that his weekly outpouring is different to those of his peers – or, for that matter, of any other sportsman or sportswomen – is the tiddler of all understatements. Four months ago he decided to veer away from the traditional route of using a ghostwriter and instead just asked his trusty media manager to insert the commas, unsplit those infinitives and ignore all the flippant remarks that in any normal course of PR would receive the instant Tipp-Ex treatment. What has thus been created is as insightful as it is amusing as it can be irreverent. Take this entry from this month's Desert Classic.
"It was Poulter who took the headlines in the week by taking his clothes off for a magazine shoot, with his modesty being obscured only by a golf bag," wrote Howell. "Golf Monthly had suggested this to me a while back, but it became apparent that this wouldn't be feasible when we found out that Cleveland, my own club manufacturer, did not make a bag big enough."
Or how about this, when describing the experience of sharing a room last month with his caddie, Nick Mumford. Howell constantly refers to Mumford, a friend who he grew up with, as "The Jockey" because "of his likeness to Frankie Dettori", and features him in the blog heavily, not to mention sardonically. Howell was stunned to discover what Mumford carried with him in his hand luggage.
"The Jockey's bag: mobile phone (fair enough I guess), spare mobile phone (not unheard of) and spare mobile phone for the spare mobile phone. Weirdo! Add to that electric toothbrush, electric shaver, laptop, PalmPilot thingy majiggy, headphones with microphone attached to make phone calls on laptop in case phone, spare phone and spare spare phone don't work, wireless adaptor to ensure the disastrous possibility of having to sit at the desk instead of on his bed to go online, adaptors for all of the above and speakers for laptop so he can watch a film from his bed, that is if he does not want to watch Spider-Man 3 on his new mobile phone ('look at the quality of the picture') which he cannot stop telling me about. Mine: phone, pillow, book."
While it is impossible to think of any other top-level pro who would ever deign to share a hotel room with his caddie (although Colin Montgomerie was once known to share a courtesy car) it strains the brain cells even more to think of a pro who could raise such good spirits on the back of his most disastrous season. In 2006, Howell picked up more than £1.5m and won three tournaments, including beating one Tiger Woods in a head-to-head down the stretch in China. In 2007 he just about scraped over the £100,000 mark, his best finish being a tie for 44th at the Masters.
A never-ending list of injuries undoubtedly played their part in this horror show, but Howell steadfastly refused to direct all the blame towards the physio van. Not for him the self-pity of an Ian Baker-Finch, the haunted look of a David Duval or even the utter denial of a Severiano Ballesteros. Speaking to Howell in Dubai two weeks ago, it was gratifying to hear a man who appreciates the slump he is in and knows exactly the sort of effort required to emerge.
"It was clearly the worst golfing year of my life," he said. "I suppose there was some early promise when I was up near the lead in my second event, the Nissan Open, and at Augusta where I was leading after 42 holes. But that aside, I hardly hit a decent shot. It was quite amazing how poorly I played even with injuries.
"As frustrated as I was, I was able to stay relaxed about it all since I made a plan of exactly what I wanted to work on with my swing over the winter. I am really looking at this first half of the year to look at my technique and make the changes I want to and if good results come along then great. But I just need to keep faith and be patient. If it takes two years to be a better player then I am going to have a great career again."
The reinvention of Howell's swing, always something of a hotch-potch, is being conducted under the expert eye of his coach, Clive Tucker. While the world's elite and most of his Ryder Cup team-mates will be at the WGC World Match Play in Tucson next week, Howell will be in Surrey working with slightly longer clubs – that stop him crouching – on a new action that has already yielded his best placing for more than a year when he finished seventh in Qatar last month. The days on the range will be long and the improvement will, he recognises, be gradual, certainly not coming quick enough to qualify for Augusta in April. But the banter will fly. With or without The Jockey.
"I call Clive 'Sony'," revealed Howell. "Because like Sony, who have years of technology up their sleeve but make you buy up each new system before moving on to the next, he slowly conveys his golfing knowledge upon me and waits until I think I've got it mastered before giving me another skill to work on."
Yes, Howell has nicknames for all his back-up staff. To name but two more there is the chiropractor "Jack The Back" – Antoni Jakubowski – and the masseuse "Mad Mary" – Mary McKay. Meanwhile, he calls himself "Wild Bill" for obvious reasons. There may be more successful units on the circuit than Team Howell, but it is fair to say none are labouring with such a smile on their face.
Still, The Jockey may just disagree. At Dubai, he and his employee stunned the gallery by clearly having something of a Tin Cup barney in the middle of the final fairway in the final round. In short, Howell, heading for yet another finish down the pack, was determined to go for the par-five green in two. His bagman wanted him to consider the cheque and the ranking points. "He stood in front of the ball for two minutes, refusing to let me pull the three wood out of the bag and refusing to get out of the way if I was intent on wasting a shot by hitting it into the lake," recalled Howell.
"Saying I cannot reach is like a red rag to a bull. So I pulled out the three wood, told him in no uncertain terms to get out of my way, hit the thing as hard as I could and watched in delight as it soared through the air, safely landing 36 inches over the water and trickling onto the green 30 feet from the pin.
"I then gently threw the three-wood 15 yards back down the fairway so that he would have to go and fetch it as punishment. Sometimes you have to remember that this is just a game and it's supposed to be fun and sometimes, even though the odds are against you, the challenge just has to be taken on."
Decline and fall: Other notable golfers who have tumbled down the rankings
The world No 1 in 1999, has spiralled to No 740 and has yet to make a cut on the PGA Tour this year. Many factors given for his decline including back, wrist, and shoulder problems; private difficulties; and a form of vertigo.
Won The Open at Troon in 2004 as an unknown 38-year-old and entered world's top 20. Now largely unknown again as he has slumped to 787th. Has had one top 10 finish since his play-off victory over Ernie Els.
Played in the winning Ryder Cup side of 2002 but is now 1,376th in the world rankings. Suffered an abdominal injury in 2006 and despite being only 36 now hardly plays, concentrating instead on his course design business.
In 2005 became first Maori to win a major when beating Tiger Woods to the US Open. Then won richest first prize in golf – £1m in the World Match Play at Wentworth. Has now slipped outside the world's top 200.
Howell is taking the challenge on, no doubt about it. He is giggling in the face of adversity. It may well laugh back. But to him golf never will be that good joke spoiled www.davidhowellgolf.comReuse content