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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.
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' worth!"
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 field."
Howell fancied 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."
Howell finally 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...."