ABU DHABI // It would have made for a nice pair of UAE bookends.
David Howell, a two-time former Ryder Cup player who has battled a series of injuries and mostly dismal results for the past several seasons, was looking at his first European Tour victory since 2006 yesterday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship when he suffered one of the most ignominious moments in tournament history.
Naked unto the world, the Englishman not only lost the lead, but seemingly lost a bit of his nerve.
"Classic case of one bad hole," Howell said.
One bad green, really. The other 71-and-a-half holes went splendidly, really.
It had been aeons since Howell, 37, who lives in Dubai, had been in contention this deep into a tournament as he took the outright lead with a birdie on the 10th hole. A bogey at the 12th was merely a precursor to a meltdown that had the most jaded, caustic fans gasping and grimacing.
After missing the green on the 13th, Howell faced a five-footer for par to retain a piece of the lead. He gunned it past the hole. The ensuing three-footer was hammered four feet past the hole, almost to the identical spot where the disaster began. Then he missed that one, too.
"Once you miss the first one, two-and-a-half feet down the hill, there's an ounce of nerves on the next one and I did make a poor stroke," Howell said. "I did make a poor stroke and the pressure really piled on the one back. We're all human and you're thinking, 'Don't four putt'. Sure enough, you have done it."
Four putts from five feet ... and his string of European Tour starts without a victory had been extended to 179 in succession. Once considered one of England's rising stars, he has managed six top-10 finishes over the past four seasons and rarely had anything but an outside chance at a win. Howell shook off the shocking triple-bogey and parred the remaining five holes to shoot 71, but he finished nine under, five strokes behind the winner Jamie Donaldson of Wales.
"It's a great opportunity missed," Howell said.
Howell earned his first career win at the Dubai Desert Classic in 1999, so a victory on Abu Dhabi would have been a nice revitalisation not far from where he began his ascent.
Watching Howell unspool was akin to seeing another sentimental favourite, Ernie Els, missing a pair of putts on the closing holes last year at Tampa as he tried in vain to win and gain a last-minute berth in the Masters. Howell has fallen even farther than had Els at the time, though.
Now No 258 in the world, a win would have put him back around 80 in the ranking.
He started the day four shots off the lead, which would have marked the biggest Sunday comeback in event history if he had held on to win.
"I was just feeling great," said Howell, one of the most approachable players on the European circuit.
"But 13 was just a shock to the system. Horrible moment for it to happen."
The system, otherwise, is running at a better clip than at any time in the past few seasons, he said. That was the reason he was able to shake off the momentary spasms of the 13th green so quickly. A finish of joint sixth in a field this deep was cause for optimism.
"I'm playing as well as I ever have," the four-time winner said, cracking a smile. "I am just coming from a very low position."