World-beater Howell ready to move into major league
Britain's new No 1 proves winners can be grinners
Yes, there has been a smirk on the 30-year-old's face that might, at first glance, suggest a certain cockiness but in fact on closer inspection it is anything but. Howell does cocky like Ian Poulter does humility and this grin has simply been the manifestation of joyous shock mixed in with the burgeoning belief that last week's humbling of this planet's greatest sportsman has taken him to a wonderland he never dreamed existed. Not in his world, anyway, not when its epicentre was Swindon.
"Yes, I do carry on surprising myself, totally" he tells you so genuinely it makes you want to leap up and hug him. "It's probably why I have this inkling that there might even be more to come." At world No 13 and British No 1, that surely can mean only one thing - majors. And that's when he stops the ride momentarily. "I struggle to believe that winning a major is the next stage," he says, peering down from the top of the roller-coaster with panic-expectation wide in his eyes. "But then, I've always thought of myself as crap."
Howell is not crap, never has been, not even when he ripped it all up in 2002 and started all over again. "I've always been a damn sight better than I think I am," he says and it wasn't as if there was too much wrong back then. He hadn't won a tournament in a couple of years, sure, but was still going along nicely enough; a few hundred grand here, a life of few worries there.
"But I wasn't where I wanted to be," he says. "The turning point was a night with a few mates in my pool room telling them how unsatisfied I was. One of them just stopped and said the classic 'Well, what the hell are you doing here with us then? Go and do whatever you have to do'." And, in effect, the re-rack had already begun.
Mind you, this was no case of 50p in the slot. "I joined Queenwood Golf Club which was about an hour and a quarter from Swindon," he said, admitting he paid the £90,000 joining fee in the process. "They had just the facilities I needed. I bought a flat there, changed my coach, changed everything really. Not many players completely alter their swing. Maybe I'm making too much of it, but I look at what I did as Faldo-like."
It is a comparison Howell is not comfortable of making, as he does not see himself as exceptional in any regard. Self-delusion almost always operates in the opposite direction in professional sport, although Howell has at least finally realised that his crouched, awkward posture stops him from walking tall in the physical sense only. "I had all these tests to find out why I'd always been hunched over the ball. They discovered I had a spinal thing, Scheuermann's Disease, which isn't serious, doesn't make me a freak or anything, but means I'll never look like Tiger. It was a moment of clarity as it made me think I just had to make the best of it. I still have to. I'm not the greatest ball-striker."
There are many in the game who will now inform you, however, that Howell is now one of the greatest putters. Harold Swash, the renowned "Putting Doctor", has given his pupil a style of his very own - legs three feet apart, hands down by his knees - and the effect has been startling. Looking back at 2005 and charting his rise to the brink of the world's top 10, it is almost comical to see the eight-week lay-off with an abdominal injury around Open time and surmise that his year could even be described as "frustrating". "I tried to come back early but then just thought 'hey, let's go on holiday'. What else could I do?"
The man they call "Howler" could very easily have howled at the moon, at the searing injustice of a season that had already promised so much with back-to-back play-offs at the British Masters and Irish Open, but then left him short with another couple of runners-up placings to throw on a rather depressing pile. Howell was suddenly good enough to be in the bridesmaid bracket, a leaderboard regular with a winless stretch all the way back to Dubai, 1999. But then came the blessed streak-breaker at Munich in August. And then came China.
"Last week was massive," he says, a fact acknowledged by Michael Vaughan, just one acquaintance who felt sufficiently thrilled to text the nice man who had seemingly just put paid to a rather annoying cliché. "It's funny, people always say that. One journalist wrote a lovely piece about me thanking him for coming around my house to see me. He finished off by saying I was probably too nice to win. But that's not true as you don't have to be a total bastard, do you? We're all self-absorbed out there because we have to be. But afterwards... well, I love signing autographs."
With that he was off to compose his own text to his former European Tour confrère Raymond Russell who had just bombed out of qualifying school and now faces a year on the fairways of purgatory. "I don't know how to phrase it," says Howell, shifting uneasily in golfing heaven. "I mean, what do you say?" With success sometimes follows embarrassment for the magnanimous such as Howell. Not every winner can turn his back on the losers so readily.
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