sport

Howell handed Open honour

England’s David Howell is relishing the opportunity to hit the first tee shot in this year’s Open Championship after a severe slump in form left him fearing he would never play in the tournament again.

Howell was once viewed as one of golf's rising stars but the loss of his mother and a run of injuries contributed to a crisis of confidence which left the Swindon-born professional questioning his future in the game.

In 2006, Howell was ranked inside the world's top 10 and on the cusp of a second consecutive Ryder Cup victory with Europe at the K Club in Ireland.

His career trajectory went on a downward spiral from there, however, and Howell admits he struggled to cope with his loss of form.

"You certainly worry,\" he said. \"I was playing poorly enough for a couple of years to think about what was I going to be able to achieve going forward.

"I still had a love for the game but I guess it was becoming a love-hate relationship and it is not a lot of fun to play professional golf when you are playing really poorly.

"It might seem like a dream job but it can be pretty depressing at times.

"The great thing about golf is it is always within your own hands to sort things out and you haven't got to be picked by a manager, your results do the talking.

"That is the toughness of the game but also the beauty of it: as long as you start putting lower scores on the board you can fight your way back.

Howell, who earned his first title since 2006 when he won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last year, says he is enjoying his golf again.

"I love golf, I love my life on the tour and all the things which come with it but the pre-requisite is you have to be playing at least reasonably well for it to be enjoyable,\" he said.

"I just wanted to get back, initially just back being able to enjoy golf. It wasn't about getting out there and winning again. It was a step-by-step thing but I didn't want my career to just ebb away and suddenly just be in the studio or teaching.

"I am proud of the way I've turned things around in the last couple of years. There is a lot of work still to do to get things back to where they were but I am on the right path."

The 39-year-old has the honour of hitting the first tee shot on Thursday at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake and will face an early 4.25am alarm call.

Far from being fazed by the prospect, Howell says he cannot wait for the opportunity to play in Europe's flagship tournament for the first time since 2009.

"I've got seven-month-old twins so it will probably be a lie-in," he said. "It doesn't feel that long (not playing an Open) to me but obviously it is.

"It is a great championship and not that easy to get into, you've got to be playing great golf somewhere along the line and I am delighted to be back.

"It will be a little thrill for a couple of minutes in its own right."

Howell tees off with 2001 champion David Duval and Sweden's Robert Karlsson while Tiger Woods, who won the third and last of his Claret Jugs here in 2006, starts his first round at 9:04am alongside Argentina's Angel Cabrera and Sweden's Henrik Stenson.