David Howell: The good, the bad and the downright ugly of professional golf

The heartbreak of missing the cut and suffering the highs and lows of tournament golf come thick and fast for most touring professionals at any level.

Professional golf can be a wonderful way to earn a living. You get to travel the world, and if you are good enough and you perform well you can earn a really good living playing the game you love. I have experienced the highs of tournament victories and Ryder Cup success. When it’s going well it really is a lot of fun. 

The last weekend in June we were privileged to play at Valderrama in Sotegrande, Spain, a famous venue unlike any other. The course was near perfect, the prize fund sizeable, the freshening wind drying out the tiny greens, the rough around its edges more menacing than ever.

I have not been in a great place of late. Injury has led to poor form and poor form has led to a lack of confidence. But I’m a battler. I always try my upmost and I’ve made two of the last three cuts on the mark – a mini success, I grant you, yet, when your back is against the wall any positives have to be grabbed with both hands.

I opened with a round of 70, which put me in a tie for 30th, my best start to a tournament for a year. But the margins on Tour are small. So, I set out for round two on this most tricky of courses, knowing that par would be a good score. I was confident I would play well. My warm-up was sublime. It’s not so easy, committing to your shots when you are high up on the breezy hillside in Sotegrande. I make the turn in one over par, level for the tournament, not too bad. I bogey the 2nd hole, a poor 9 iron and a plugged lie cost me a shot, a very poor mistake which inches me closer to extreme pressure.

On the 4th I lay up into a prime position, 87 yards from the pin. I hit too hard, so it’s another tricky greenside chip from dense 6-inch rough runs too far past, a bogey ensues. A  horrible mistake, a Valderrama mistake. Calmness continues to be my state of mind, I play the 5th beautifully for a par, then I hit a 7 iron on the 6th to a foot so the birdie takes me back to 1-over par. It’s a timely move, to say the least. The 7th is tough, the longest par-4 on the course, into the freshening wind.

I get the ball greenside in two, putting uphill, and hole the four-footer as if I’m on the practice green. I’m in good shape. The eighth is a great hole – a 3 iron and a wedge. But it’s narrow. Miss the fairway and things get a whole lot more tricky – and that’s what I do, not a bad shot, just not a good one. I find the rough. My wedge shot can’t hold the firm green. I have another dreaded 8-yard chip from the heavy rough, I play it OK but not great. Five feet left for par. I miss-read it and the pressure mounts. 

There is nothing that quite resembles the pressure of trying to make the cut on the final hole. By definition, a pro trying to make the cut on the 36th hole is a pro playing average golf, competent but not great. I’ve made my last two cuts right on the mark, handling that pressure admirably and making my way through to the weekend. But I’ve made only two cuts in 9 months, that’s the reality of it all.

Nothing is easy right now. Picture taking your driving test for 5 hours every week, and failing 15 times in a row, over a period of 9 months. However, when you pass the test, you have to take it again next week – yet there’s no guarantee you will pass again. It’s the same feelings on Tour. Today I miss the fairway by 3-yards but my lie is not too bad. My 7 iron carries the greenside trap but is my ball on the green? Or did it hang up in the tangly rough?

We make our way to the green. As I peer over the hill at the front of the green, I see my ball nestled on the fringe, 24 feet from the pin. A wry smile with my caddy, we couldn’t be more pleased to see the ball in a putt-able position. I have an uphill putt, slightly from the right. I can get this ball down in two or less shots 97 times out of 100, but nothing is easy at this stage. 

Pressure generally leads to cautious strokes, and sure enough up the hill I leave my putt 4-feet short. It’s a horror of a stroke, but it’s the shot that can take all the pressure away. Instead it raises the stakes tenfold. Miss and my heart will break, and I’ll feel like a tiny bit of my soul will float away, never to be retrieved. 

I return to my routine but the underlying feeling is there, that this could hurt. This week I do fail, I pull it to the left, the kind of stroke that everyone who has ever played golf has made, I fail. For the first time in 24 years I three-putt the last from less than 25 ft to miss by one shot.

If I were a young boy I would undoubtedly cry. I face my caddy, who is equally mortified. Young family to provide for. We pack my bag, I change my flight and check out of my hotel. I’m not alone. my room-mate has also had a bad day, another colleague has missed his 6th cut in a row by one shot. We head to the airport. We ponder with one another. 

If the TV cameras could capture all this emotion it would surely make an award-winning fly on-the-wall documentary.

As it is, they haven’t, of course. Telling this story is not so easy. Our scores are down in black and white and the full story behind the scores will never be known. Golf is great, but boy it can hurt, too.

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