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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most