Dunhill Links: David Howell rises from the depths
Once as high as ninth in the world rankings before plummeting outside the top 550, the 38-year-old “lost my way in life and on the course as well”. But he picked the perfect place to show to the world that he is back in a “really happy place”.
Two shots behind American Uihlein at the start of the final round – after the balmy conditions of the three previous days, a dip in the temperatures and some wind meant this was more like the Dunhill weather we’ve come to expect – Howell returned to the winner’s enclosure by turning back the clock.
In 2006, the man from Swindon had outscored playing partner Tiger Woods to win the HSBC Champions event in China then, a few months later, became the first Englishman since Nick Faldo to claim the PGA Championship – the European Tour’s flagship event.
In that same year, he played on a second winning Ryder Cup team but a spate of injuries, mainly back problems, as well as personal issues – he split up from Emily, his girlfriend at the time but now his wife, for a spell – drained his confidence.
The arrival of son Freddie, now 18 months, and the impending arrival of twins have helped Howell find happiness off the course and now he is smiling again on it. You want to have seen the pleasure on his face as he sat gazing at the Dunhill Links trophy at his post-event press conference. “There’s always a carrot dangling – and there is the carrot,” he said, touching the impressive piece of silverware.
The victory had been gained by a closing 67 for a tournament record total of 23-under 265. He’d holed from 12 feet to save par at the 17th, then overcame having to hit his second shot off Granny Clark’s Wynd to do likewise at the last. Unable to match his last-hole heroics from 24 hours earlier when he sent his second straight into the cup, Uihlein matched that total with a closing 69. Howell, though, wasn’t going to be denied and holed his downhill birdie putt at the second play-off hole.
“It’s been a long, long road from the depths of despair,” admitted the champion and winner of a £495,153 top prize. “I lost my way in life and on the course as well so this is a really sweet moment. With Emily and Freddie at home and the twins on the way, the off-course life has never been better and to finally win a massive championship shows I’m also in a really happy place at the moment with my golf.”
Defenceless on the first three days, an easterly wind that was blowing around 15mph in the middle of the afternoon at least meant the players faced a test coming home. It also meant that plenty of red figures were being posted going out, the best of a flurry of good starts coming from Frenchman Thomas Levet.
Four off the lead at the outset, the 45-year-old former Scottish Open winner birdied the first five holes, maintained his momentum by picking up another shot at the seventh and, suddenly but also briefly, found himself three shots clear of the field.
It wasn’t a day when the outward journey was going to prove decisive; more a case of jostling into position then fastening the seat belt and trying to avoid anything too disastrous on the last six holes, all into the teeth of the breeze.
Howell covered his first seven holes in five-under to get his nose in front on 23-under before being joined by Levet after he rolled in a lengthy birdie putt at the 11th. Irishman Shane Lowry, who ended up in a tie for third with Tom Lewis, made his move around the turn, sandwiching an eagle-2 at the tenth, where he chipped in from just short of the green, with a brace of birdies.
By the time everyone was through the turn, the top 15 were separated by four shots. It was anyone’s guess who would come out on top, though Levet dropped out of the reckoning when he ran up a double-bogey 7 at the 14th to slip four behind.
Playing a few groups ahead of the leaders, Lewis, having gone out in 31, started for home with three birdies in five holes to move to 22-under – two behind Lowry after the Irishman followed his eagle with another 2 at the 11th.
Uihlein had started shakily with an opening bogey but wasn’t unsettled by seeing three different players – Levet, Howell and Lowry – edging ahead of him at different spells during the afternoon. When Lowry dropped two shots in three holes, missing from two-and-a-half feet at the 15th, and Howell scribbled down his first bogey of the day at the 12th, the American, having covered an eighth-hole stretch from the fifth in four-under, found himself back at the head of affairs once more.
By that time, the clubhouse target had been set by Lewis. He had parred in from the 15th, getting up and down from the Valley of Sin at the last, for his second 64 of the week on the Old Course and a 22-under-par tally. At that stage, it looked as though it could possibly get him into a play-off. As it was, Howell and Uihlein deprived him of that opportunity, but the huge consolation for him was a cheque for just under £170,000 that secured his card for another year as he jumped from 155th to 99th in the Race to Dubai.
“It’s a great week and my best of the year, so hopefully I can go forward from here,” said Lewis, who was the leading amateur in the Open in 2011 and then won the Portugal Masters in his third event as a professional. “I have had spells of playing well but something in my game let me down. This week it all came together and links golf suits me.”
Lowry was similarly upbeat despite being edged out of the play-off.
“It was obviously a great week for me,” he said. “I fell one short, but you can’t really beat yourself up about that. If I keep doing what I’m doing, I can’t see a win being too far round the corner.”
The day, however, belonged to Howell and, similar to newly-crowned FedEx Cup champion Henrik Stenson, he has turned his career around by showing courage and determination.
“I’ve played in a lot of Opens, but not one at St Andrews,” he said. “So to win a championship here is very, very sweet. All week I was nervous – I can’t explain why. But today I found a little bit of inner strength and I was a little calmer.”