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As a consequence of his tinkering Howell's ball striking began to improve dramatically, and he still had that short game, a potent combination. At the '04 Ryder Cup in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., his play passed the ultimate test: the key match of the competition, a Saturday-morning four-ball alongside fellow Ryder rookie Paul Casey. The U.S. team was rallying and would win 21/2 points in the session's other three matches. Howell and Casey were 1 down with two to play against Jim Furyk and Chad Campbell as they reached the exacting par-3 17th hole at Oakland Hills. Howell covered the flag with a six-iron, and his six-footer for birdie squared the match. The Euros then stole a point by winning the 18th hole. The bang-bang finish shifted the momentum and propelled Europe to victory.
Howell's heroic six-iron was later honored as the shot of the year by the European tour, which he finds delicious. "I won shot of the year on a flying duff," he says with typical modesty. "I caught it heavy, but it worked out O.K."
Later that year Broome Manor Golf Club named its bar after Howell. More than 100 locals turned out for the party, and Howell brought a special guest--the Ryder Cup. Says Ray, "I had tears. Of course I did. It meant the world to David and all of us." Pause. "Of course you'd think I'd get a free drink there occasionally, but no."
At Christmas 2004, David was asked to preside over the flicking on of the Christmas lights in Swindon, a cherished tradition. He's been lighting up various golf courses ever since. In 2005 he won the BMW International Open, his first victory in six years. Naturally, his momentum was slowed when at the U.S. Open in Pinehurst he decided to test a weighted club and tore an abdominal muscle, sidelining him for 21/2 months. But at November's HSBC Championship, Howell ended any lingering questions about his guts. He held a one-stroke lead over Woods heading into the final round. Then he staggered Tiger with four birdies in the first seven holes. In winning, Howell shot a closing 68 to Woods's 70. They shared a long handshake on the final green. Said Howell, "I told him we were all honored as golfers to have the chance to beat him, and I said how privileged we were to be playing in his era."
Howell collected another scalp at this year's Accenture Match Play Championship, beating Phil Mickelson in the Sweet 16, and in May he won the Euro tour's flagship event, the BMW Championship at Wentworth, establishing himself as a U.S. Open dark horse. At Winged Foot, Howell played the first 14 holes in four under, roaring to the lead, but a sloppy finish left him at even-par 70, and on Friday he blew up with a 78 and was spotted flinging a club, the first time anyone could recall that happening. Howell closed with a 69 to finish 16th, leading the field with 16 birdies, but uncharacteristically, he also led with six double bogeys. "There was enough there to show me I'm not a million miles away," he says. "I lost my patience on Friday, and that was a very valuable lesson to have learned."
Heading into Hoylake, Howell is as focused and confident as he's ever been. He recently broke up with a longtime girlfriend, but suggest to Howell that he now rates alongside Prince William as one of Britain's most eligible bachelors and he mutters, "Oh, dear," before adding, "My life is very simple, really. I'm single. I don't have a sprawling estate. I don't have a plane to worry about. I'm simply trying to play as good of golf as I can."
Whether that will be good enough at the Open Championship remains to be seen. There are also plenty of other big tournaments ahead, including a little grudge match in September. No, not the Ryder Cup. We're talking about the club championship at Queenwood, where Clarke is the titleholder. Howell already has had the bar at Broome Manor christened in his honor. Now he's ready to make a name for himself beyond Swindon.
> Read Alan Shipnuck's daily British Open blog at SI.com/golf.