By Mathieu Wood
David Howell, the DP World Tour’s record appearance holder, claimed the first of his five Tour titles at Dubai Creek Resort in 1999. 25 years on from that win, the Englishman revisits that breakthrough triumph and assesses what lies ahead for his career as he starts the year for the first time without full playing privileges.
“If you'd asked me at 23 on the 18th green at Dubai Creek when I won my first Tour event whether I’d take the career I’ve had then I’d have said yes,” says Howell.
The Englishman is reflecting on his pride at what he has achieved during a career that is nearing a fourth decade when he recalls the time he landed the first of his five Tour titles.
In his fourth season playing on the DP World Tour, then the European Tour, Howell won the 1999 Dubai Desert Classic after converting a share of the 54-hole lead into a four-shot victory.
“I was on the range on the Saturday evening, and I had this calmness about me,” the two-time former Ryder Cup winner tells the DP World Tour.
“It was probably the most confident moment of my life on Tour funnily enough. I had a sense of inner confidence. I was right where I needed to be.”
It was probably the most confident moment of my life on Tour funnily enough.
While recalling the week itself, he offers an anecdote about his swing thoughts heading into the tournament as if it was only yesterday.
A few months earlier, the Englishman landed his maiden title in the professional ranks with a seven-shot success at the Australian PGA Championship.
Yet in between his first and second titles, Howell was largely unable to play through an injury.
“After I flew home from Australia, a couple of weeks later I twisted my knee and sprained my ankle,” he remembers. “It was a really bad injury actually.”
Howell missed the first three events of the 1999 season, returning to action at the start of February in Malaysia where he finished in a tie for 27th.
By his own admission, despite the respectable result, his game wasn’t in “great shape”. Yet, it was just a week later when his childhood dreams of becoming a winner on Tour became a reality.
“I didn’t look at the leaderboards,” Howell says as he revisits his final round five-under-par 67 in Dubai.
“Whilst I was confident, I also knew mentally it was a huge day for me to try and win that first event.
“I had my great childhood friend and caddie on the bag, Jason Hempleman. I told him to keep me talking about everything other than golf. There was a bit of Eastenders, all sorts of stuff really.
“I managed to play beautifully, finding fairways and greens up to the 18th.
"Then my mind went to ‘how, could I mess this up?’ I envisaged hitting it into the water twice as I was walking to the 18th tee!
"But such was my lead, I realised that I'd be able to wedge on the green and three-putt for an eight and I'd still win so I sort of calmed down.
“To win with my best mate, someone I learned to play golf with, in an amazing setting like the Creek and the amazing clubhouse meant a lot.
“I had to pinch myself. What I hoped would happen with my life, which was to earn a living playing golf, was happening and in the best possible way. It was an absolutely wonderful moment.”
What comes across when speaking to Howell is his love for the game of golf. Even now, at the age of 48 and with 723 DP World Tour starts to his name, that hasn’t dwindled.
Howell first hit a golf ball around the age of ten, and it wasn’t long after that he knew it was what he wanted to set his mind to.
“I left school trying to not go to college,” he says with a laugh. “That was the sum of my ambitions. I wanted to be involved in golf. I just loved it.
“I got to be a golf member when I was ten. At 16, I wasn't the best player in my club (Broome Manor Golf Club). I wasn't even a better player than the person who went on to become my caddie.
“My other best friend was a golfing genius. I couldn't lace his boots at that stage.
“And then my rise from 16 to 20, having left school, from a two handicap player of no lessons in this period of time, no coaching, and I found myself on Tour at 20. It happened in the blink of an eye.
"It was the easiest journey ever for me. It was remarkable. When I look back, I can't believe I did it."
Since then, Howell has competed around the world and against the best players.
During his near 30 years in the paid ranks, the Englishman has won seven professional titles and represented Europe on two Ryder Cup winning teams – a goal he says was a “real driving force” earlier in his career.
But, while those moments of success will forever hold a special place in his heart, it is the friendships he has created that mean the most to him.
“Ultimately the trophies are nice, the bit of money I've earned has been lovely, but it's the people that I got to hang around with and meet in this environment," he explains.
“Playing with Seve (Ballesteros), José María Olazábal, Tiger (Woods) and most of the world's greatest players in their prime is what I will remember when I look back on my golfing life.
“It won't be so much winning (the BMW PGA Championship) at Wentworth, which was my proudest moment. It's the people I got to do it next to. I've mixed with my heroes for a lot of my life.”
For the first time in 28 years, Howell does not have full playing privileges this season on the DP World Tour after missing out on reclaiming his card via the Final Stage of Qualifying School in November.
While that is a source of disappointment, the Chairman of the DP World Tour’s Player Committee is still anticipating continuing to play an active role in the sport that has held such a pivotal role in his life.
Where I get the opportunity to play some tournaments this year, whether it be on the Challenge Tour or the DP World Tour, I will.
“I questioned whether (remaining chairman) was the right thing or whether I wanted to, having lost my card, but fundamentally any involvement in this great Tour for me is a privilege, so I'm going to carry on with that,” he says.
“For a good number of years, though, I've done odds and sods of TV along the way, very fortunately.
“That's ramped up this coming year. So, my main focus is to see where I can go with a TV career going forward while also acknowledging that I am a golfer at heart. If I still had a card, I'd still be doing that over the TV.
“I am a golfer, it's as simple as that. So, where I get the opportunity to play some tournaments this year, whether it be on the Challenge Tour or the DP World Tour, I will.
“Fortunately, I've won a few tournaments, so I can play in at least three of those this year that I've formally won. So, I'll take the opportunities when they come along to get back out there and see if my game can improve from where it's been the last couple of years.
“I’ll be looking to keep in shape and keep active golfing wise to see what happens when the Legends Tour comes along the following year in 2025 and see where my life is at the point that I turn 50."