David Howell repaid the bookmakers’ faith in him when, after being installed as the 9/1 favourite for the dunhill links championship in Scotland, he ended the first round in a share of the lead with American Rich Beem and Alessandro Tadini of Italy after the trio all carded five under par 67s at Carnoustie.
The 1999 Open Championship venue was feared as the most testing of the three famous links courses in action this week but the relatively windless Championship Course was fairly benign, a point borne out by the fact that nine of the top 13 at the end of the first day played at the Angus venue.
Three players at Kingsbarns – Kenneth Ferrie, Bradley Dredge and Keith Horne - and only one at St Andrews – former Ryder Cup Captain Sam Torrance – finished amongst a group of ten players who opened with four under par 68s, but the honours of the day belonged to Howell, Beem and Tadini.
For Howell, now completely recovered from a muscle injury which ruled him out for two months in the summer, it was a continuation of a rich seam of form which saw him win his second European Tour International Schedule title in the BMW International Open in Munich at the end of August and be joint top points scorer in last week’s Seve Trophy at The Wynyard Club.
Highlight of the round for the 30 year old Englishman came at the 394 yard seventh where he holed his five iron second shot from 160 yards out for an eagle two. Combined with birdies at the second, ninth, 12th and 14th, which more than made up for his only bogey of the day at the 15th where he found sand with his approach shot, it made for a good day’s work for the man from Swindon.
“I am confident at the moment and I have learned over the past couple of years that if I play nice golf I generally contend in tournaments which means I don’t have to worry,” he said.
“I couldn’t ask for any more at the moment, things are going great. We talked a lot about coming back from the injury and it’s strange how things work out. Obviously the injury was a real blow but there’s a silver lining to everything and I have come back much stronger – it’s amazing really.”
Sharing the limelight was Tadini who had a sparkling back nine of 31, which featured six birdies in total on his way to his 67. Such a fine performance also went some way to banishing some of the sadness the Italian is still feeling over the recent death of his Argentine caddie – Nester ‘The Eagle’ Stiles – who was killed in a car crash in nearby Perthshire at the beginning of August.
“He was a friend as well as a caddie and I was devastated but today was good,” he said. “I putted beautifully today and that is the reason why I am where I am. I practiced here yesterday but the wind was different today and I’m delighted especially because the last time I played here was in the Amateur Championship back in 1992.”
Another player to enjoy his latest visit to Carnoustie more than his last one was the third joint leader, Beem, who carded 80-81 in the first two rounds of the 1999 Open to miss the cut, but who put matters right in fine style with a vastly improved 67.
Beem, who memorably held off the challenge of World Number One Tiger Woods to win the 2002 US PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, had six birdies in total and put the improvement in his game down to a vast improvement in his putting.
“I hit the ball well today and I putted great,” said the 35 year old American. “I think your short game has to save you around here and mine did today. I made a lot of good up and downs and while I didn’t hole a lot of long putts, I hit them all solid.”
“My season started pretty well and then I struggled in the middle part because my putting just killed me. Out of the 203 guys they rank on the US PGA Tour, I was 201st, so right after the Open, at my wife’s suggestion, I brought a friend over who has helped me with my short game in the past.
“I went to a completely different putter and it just clicked. I had been playing well but getting nothing out of my rounds which drains you. If you miss a green, you feel you are dead because you know you are not going to get up and down.
“But now it doesn’t feel that way at all and it really frees up my game. I’m excited about playing golf again and I think that shows. That day I got back from the Open, I didn’t even bring my old putter with me. I think it is still in two pieces in the Castle Bar in St Andrews!”
Another man excited about his golf again is Sam Torrance whose 68 at St Andrews was the best score over the Old Course and, at 52 and the oldest professional in the field, the former Ryder Cup Captain also assumed the mantle of leading the host nation’s challenge for a title which has been won by Scots in two of the last four years.
Torrance admitted that his current successful season on the European Seniors Tour, where he has won three times and is close behind leader Carl Mason in the race for the Order of Merit title, has helped get his competitive juices flowing once again.
“I am playing nicely,” said the Scot. “It is down to just hard work and swinging well, the swing has been good for a while and once you’ve got it in the slot, you’re comfortable and you’re not scared of any shots, nothing scares you, and it is nice to be playing well.
“Obviously competing on the Seniors Tour has helped as well and winning is obviously a confidence booster. Being in the thick of competition gives you a buzz. I’ve done that all my life and it is nice to be able to go out and do it again. It is nice to come out and do it here as well mind you.”
In the amateur team contest, which runs in conjunction with the main European Tour event, leading the way is South African businessman Brand de Villiers who, together with fellow countryman Des Terblanche, carded a combined 11 under par 61 at the Old Course in St Andrews.