Former Ryder Cup star David Howell's determination not to let his career sink without trace finally paid rich dividends on Thursday. Down at 479th in the world -- he was ninth four years ago -- Howell emerged from the wilderness with a 7-under-par 64 in the first round of the 3 Irish Open.
"I've never wanted to give up, but it's crossed my mind that if I carry on playing as I did last year I wouldn't have a career to be worried about," said the 35-year-old.
He has even turned to television commentary and after-dinner speaking, but when asked if the comedy circuit was becoming a possible alternative Howell replied: "Not yet -- I think my golf's been a bit of a comedy for the last couple of years."
Five birdies and then an eagle on the 519-yard 16th lifted Howell into a one-stroke lead over Ireland's Damien McGrane and Australian left-hander Richard Green.
Last year's runner-up Robert Rock -- he actually took the first prize because the winner was amateur Shane Lowry -- also handed in a 65, but was then disqualified for a scorecard mix-up.
McGrane outscored his illustrious compatriots Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell by three and five shots, respectively, while Darren Clarke shot 66, Rory McIlroy 67 and two-time PGA Tour winner Justin Rose a desperately disappointing 74 that can only harm his Ryder Cup hopes.
"I've been working hard and persevering. I've been back with my old coach Clive Tucker for six months now and I've certainly been hitting the ball a lot better the last two or three,” Howell said. "I chipped in and holed three long ones -- more than my fair share, which in fairness you normally do when you shoot 64."
His last was in Portugal two years ago and brought him a playoff, but last season saw him slump again to only 156th in Europe and he has not had a top-10 finish since September.
"My patience ran out a good while ago. I had a very bad injury at the start of 2007, split up with my then-girlfriend (she is now his wife) and I wasn't a happy person,” Howell explained. "Added to playing rubbish it was a pretty lonely, miserable time, so I finally got round to sorting my personal life out and this year I'm in a happy point in my life.
"Golf is very difficult when you're a pro and you don't know where the ball is going,” he added. “It's a very stressful thing to do -- that's why I'm losing my hair, really."
With talk of a possible 59 -- something never achieved on the European Tour -- the course held up well given that there was no more than a breeze.
"I was wrong in my initial assessment,” said Clarke, continuing a recent revival that might yet force European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie to find another vice-captain. “This morning, it would have been impossible to get Killarney playing any easier. Yes the guys will get more familiar with it, but there's so many places that they can put the pins that we just can't get at."
McIlroy, at eighth in the world the highest-ranked player on view, made eight birdies, but also threw in four bogeys.
"It's not as easy as everyone thinks it is,” he said. "There's better courses in Ireland definitely, but if they don't want to have the Irish Open that's the way it goes."
Harrington did not drop a shot, but admitted his keenness to end almost two years without a win is making him more tense than he would like to be.
"Sometimes you find it very hard to win and then all of a sudden the floodgates open," he said, and he should know -- his first major title in 2007 was quickly followed by two more.
McDowell, hoping for the same thing after capturing the U.S. Open last month, stated: "I just need to sharpen up across the board. I said someone would go super low, but you can defend this course by hiding the pins."
Meanwhile, Italian teenager Matteo Manassero's record of not missing a cut as a professional is in jeopardy after he received a two-stroke penalty after his round. The 17-year-old signed for a 1-over 72 when his opening bogey 5 was turned into a triple-bogey 7 for kicking some stones.
Manassero's mistake was to do it before he had escaped from the rocky edge of Lough Leane. Because he was still not out of the hazard after his first attempt, touching or moving loose impediments was not allowed.
This is the fifth of the seven invitations Manassero is permitted as he tries to earn enough on the European Tour to avoid a trip to the qualifying school later in the year. He has so far won about $120,000, but might need to more than double that on his remaining starts.
The day’s biggest news, however, was Rock, the player who lost a playoff last year, opened with a 65 -- and then was disqualified for signing for a wrong score. Rock didn’t spot that his card had him down for a par on the 14th and birdie at the 15th instead of the other way around.
"It's my fault,” Rock said. "I checked it, but didn't see it and it's my job to do that. I don't think I've been disqualified for anything before. I'd have preferred it to be after an 80!"
Amazingly, last year's first-round leader Francesco Molinari was also then disqualified for signing for a wrong score.
"What else can you do?" added Rock. "I've gone through the same process I always do and I've done a lot over eight years, but this time I just missed it. I didn't have a clue until it was pointed out to me that the scores were different."
Rock's fellow countryman David Lynn was the playing partner who got his scores wrong on the card.