2006: Kingdom coming - British Open

By Rex Hoggard

In defense of the American golf fan, it’s important to point out that the United Kingdom’s best and brightest hope for a home-grown British Open champion is something of an affable afterthought even at his home club near London.

Not that new world aficionados of the royal and ancient game should be let off the hook for their often insular ways – most Americans are still coming to grips with the reality that it was Geoff Ogilvy, who is rumored to be related to a long-dead British duke, and not Joe Ogilvie, a Duke graduate, swilling ale from the U.S. Open trophy last month.

But at Queenwood Golf Club – the upscale enclave where David Howell spends his time when he’s not banking euros or beating his high-profile American counterparts in international showdowns (pick a cup, almost any cup) – the quiet 31-year-old from Swindon, England, ranks a distant fourth in member cachet behind the likes of Ernie Els, Adam Scott and current club champion Darren Clarke.

Predictably, Howell’s name recognition in the United States lags even further down the leaderboard. He even joked after winning the BMW Championship earlier this year, one of the European circuit’s most prestigious events: “People in America realize my first name is David and not Charles (Howell III) now.”

At least for now, stateside galleries are more interested in the lanky Howell from Augusta, Ga., than the likable Howell from the far side of the pond. But as evidenced by the Englishman’s 16th-place finish at the U.S. Open, his second consecutive top-20 finish at a major (T-19 at the Masters), it’s increasingly clear that Americans have been infatuated with the wrong Howell.

And while the lineup at Queenwood makes for a tough member-member draw, it’s worth pointing out it’s about the only ranking Howell isn’t dominating these days.

He holds a comfortable lead on the PGA European Tour’s Order of Merit and is No. 1 on the European Ryder Cup points list, assuring himself his second start in the matches later this year in Ireland. He is No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index and No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Perhaps more importantly, this soft-spoken son of an amateur opera singer – who readily admits to being injury prone – has gone more than one lunar cycle without a trip to the doctor’s office, and appears poised to become England’s first British Open champion since Nick Faldo in 1992.

“He sees a major as his next progression,” says Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, Howell’s manager with International Sports Management. “He’s now at a stage in his career and is a good enough player to turn

up at (majors) and think, ‘Why shouldn’t I be in the mix?’

“One of his sayings is, ‘The World Rankings don’t lie. I must be a decent player.’ ”

Any examination of Howell’s British Open chances must come with a buyer’s warning. When the championship begins July 20 at Royal Liverpool, Howell’s Open resume will make him something less than a betting lock at Ladbrokes.

His second British Open, in 1998 at Royal Birkdale (T-42), was his best showing, and since then it has been a curious slide into mediocrity with consecutive missed cuts from 2001-2004 and a no-show last year because of an abdominal injury.

“I can’t explain it,” Howell says. “I guess the first few times it was my first couple of majors.

I did well to qualify. But as time went on, I just haven’t come to grips with links courses.”

Howell, who grew up in the interior of England and learned the game on a parkland layout, has even acknowledged his best chance at a major is probably Augusta National. His tie for 11th at the 2005 Masters is his best Grand Slam showing.

His current form and his familiarity with the Royal Liverpool links, though, give Howell, and English golf fans, reason for optimism.

The last time an Open Championship was played on the quirky links (1967), Howell wasn’t born and the Claret Jug still had a reasonable chance of staying on the Old World side of the Atlantic.

Yet Howell did play the 1995 British Amateur at Liverpool, losing to eventual champion Gordon Sherry in the quarterfinals but gaining valuable experience that few in this year’s field enjoy.

“It’s a different course,” Howell says. “It’s a bit funky with a couple of holes going around the practice ground, but a great course.”

Howell borrowed a page from Phil Mickelson’s major playbook, sneaking a visit to Royal Liverpool the week after the Open de France.

And, unlike those American galleries at Winged Foot, there is sure to be plenty of home support for Howell at Hoylake. But it wasn’t always that way.

Like many Englishmen who bypass American colleges for life as professionals, Howell’s progress has, at times, been Pebble Beach slow. The years following his jump to the play-for-pay ranks in 1995 were something of a pro golf apprenticeship, with few signs of what was to come.

His inaugural victory came in 1998 at the Australian PGA Championship, and he quickly followed with his first European title at the ’99 Dubai Desert Classic. After Dubai, however, he became mired in a five-year victory drought.

“In hindsight he may have won a bit early,” Chandler says. “Maybe before his game was really ready. Now his game has gone to another level.”

The primary culprit behind Howell’s slide was a chorus line of injuries that often resembled a script from Fox Network’s “House.”

Howell missed most of 2002 when he broke his left arm after tripping over one of his shoelaces. Last year, while warming up for his second U.S. Open on the practice range at Pinehurst, Howell injured a muscle in his abdomen swinging a weighted club he’d borrowed from Vijay Singh.

Yet Howell’s frequent bouts with emergency rooms have only strengthened what is best defined as a quiet self-confidence.

“The injury (at Pinehurst) was a real blow, but there’s a silver lining to everything and I have come back so much stronger. It’s amazing really,” Howell says.

Howell lost about “a half a stone” since the painful stomach injury last year forced him to embrace the athletic side of a strangely non-athletic sport and he’s added about “half a rod” to his average drive since teaming with swing coach Clive Tucker in late 2002.

Translation for those who long ago embraced the New World measurement system: He’s 7 pounds lighter and 8 yards longer off the tee than he was in 2000.

“He didn’t go bad,” Chandler says. “He took a long time to work out what he needed to.

He needed to settle on a coach, on a caddie.

He’s built up this really good team.”

Howell also has learned how to handle the pressure that defines these Grand Slam gatherings.

His first introduction to the American masses came at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Howell became an almost immediate urban legend in Europe when he teamed with Paul Casey to stem a U.S. rally and defeat Jim Furyk and Chad Campbell in Saturday’s four-balls.

In just two transatlantic matches, including the 1995 Walker Cup, Howell has an impressive 3-1-1 record. He’s the kind of under-the-radar assassin U.S captain Tom Lehman lies awake at night worrying about.

Maybe his most impressive international showing came late last year, when he outdueled Tiger Woods in the final round of the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, China. Yet even in victory Howell was unassuming and without a hint of pretentiousness.

“When you play with Tiger, the only thing you learn from him is how far you need to go to catch up,” Howell said.

At Winged Foot, when asked about his relative obscurity among American fans, Howell smiled: “Everyone knows me, surely. I’m a very famous name.”

As his tongue-in-cheek comment hung in the air, Howell took a final glance at the U.S. Open leaderboard, perhaps realizing that major championships can make a household name out of even the most obscure player.

Regardless of how he stacks up at his home club.

– Alex Miceli contributed

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