To reach the
inner sanctum of European golf you must make a long drive through a verdant
countryside until a set of towering gates rises unexpectedly among the trees. A
twisty private road deposits you in front of an imposing edifice, where you are
greeted by a staffer who already knows your name and reason for being. You are
handed off to another gent, who wears a discreet earpiece in the manner of a
Secret Service agent, and then marched down a long hallway of polished marble
to the very heart of the sport in Europe.
This chamber is not the headquarters of the Royal & Ancient at St. Andrews.
It is not Bob Torrance's den. It is the clubhouse of Queenwood Golf Club, in
Surrey, an upscale county near London, the most exclusive and aggressively
private club in the United Kingdom, with a membership that includes Ernie Els,
Adam Scott, Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Paul McGinley, to say nothing of
assorted moguls and tycoons. Yet settling in for an interview in the formal,
wood-paneled library, you are greeted by the discordant sight of a spiky-haired
lad with an impish grin. David Howell arches an eyebrow and, with a nod to both
the plush surroundings and his blue-collar hometown 80 miles to the west, says,
"I suppose it is a long way from Swindon, isn't it?"
Howell is also a
member at Queenwood, and over the last two years he has been the club's most
productive player, an ascent that began with a starring role at the 2004 Ryder
Cup. With two victories on the 2006 European tour--including a dusting of Tiger
Woods in a head-to-head, final-round matchup at the HSBC Championship in
Shanghai-- Howell, 31, is comfortably atop the tour's Order of Merit and has
surged to No. 10 in the World Ranking. His long road to stardom can be neatly
summarized as the unlikely journey from Swindon to Queenwood. Along the way he
has mastered the art of self-effacement.
When it was
suggested to Howell earlier this year that he had become Europe's top player,
he quipped that he was still only the third-best player at his home club, as
Scott (No. 6) and Els (No. 8) lorded over him in the World Ranking. Next week
Howell will be a fan favorite when the Open Championship is played at Royal
Liverpool--no Englishman has won since Nick Faldo in 1992--but he's trying his
best not to get wrapped up in the hype that comes with being anointed the
latest Next Faldo. "I will not feel any undue pressure because there hasn't
been a British champion in a number of years," Howell says. "I mean,
I'm just now getting to the stage where I think I possibly could be a
factor." He does have some good vibes at Hoylake, having reached the
quarterfinals there at the '95 British Amateur. That same summer he led Great
Britain & Ireland to victory in the Walker Cup, inspiring Howell to turn
pro later that year, though his vision of the future was modest. "In no
way, shape or form did I dream I would do what I've done," he says.
Where does such a
down-to-earth self-assessment come from? Says Howell's father, Ray, "I
don't think boys from Swindon necessarily dream very big."
In the mordantly
funny British TV series The Office one plotline had the Swindon branch of the
Wernham Hogg paper company being absorbed by the Slough office. Welcoming the
displaced Swindon employees to their new headquarters, the sitcom's loathsome
protagonist, David Brent, tries to lighten the mood with a joke: "How much
damage would an atomic bomb do to Swindon?" (Pause.) "Fifteen pounds'
Swindon is an old
railroad town that now derives much of its economic well-being from a large
Honda manufacturing plant. It's not a glamorous place, but Howell can't imagine
a better spot to grow up in, for the simple reason that his house backed up to
a grassy field. "I would sneak out every evening and whack a seven-iron
with the other lads," Howell says. "It was silly stuff, but that's the
way to learn, to enjoy the game for what it is--whacking a ball in a
himself a footballer for most of his youth but at 14 committed to golf. By 16
he had left school to devote himself to the game. Ray and Sally, David's
mother, were supportive, as they understood his desire for a grander stage. Ray
owns a furniture store in the Old Town section of Swindon. His passion,
however, is performing in local operas, and he met his bride-to-be at the local
chapter of the Gilbert & Sullivan society. (They split four years ago.)
To support his
travels on the amateur circuit, David spent his winters working menial jobs,
including two years installing rain gutters for �10 a day. "I wasn't much
use because I didn't like heights," he says. "I'd get up the ladder and
hold on for dear life."
When he was 18,
Howell won his first important title, the British Boys Amateur Championship,
and that winter he upgraded to a job with Readers Digest, packing boxes of
books. "Those jobs were the best thing I ever did," he says. "When
kids ask my advice now, I counsel them to go get the worst job they can find
because it motivated me to make something of my life."
turned pro in the fall of 1995, birdieing two of the last five holes at tour
school to earn his card. He arrived on the Euro tour "as unprofessional as
you could possibly imagine," he says. "Baggy shirt, clubs all
knackered, wooden driver with a frayed grip...."