WHEN David Howell walked off the 13th green at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Sunday, he must have wished the ground would swallow him up.
The Broome Manor pro, without a European Tour title since 2006, had just all-but ended his hopes of stopping that barren run with four swings of a putter.
Previous to that, in his own words, Howell was ‘in the zone’. He had birdied five of the opening 10 holes and was just one shot off the lead following a bogey at 12.
Having bunkered his second at 13, the two-time Ryder Cup winner recovered superbly by scooping the ball out to within five feet of the hole.
For anyone on the tour, never mind a player with the exemplary short game of Howell, it was a makeable putt and two attempts would have been the most he expected to take.
What happened next was almost as horrible to watch as it was for Howell to experience. The first attempt ran way past the hole and two further putts somehow did not drop.
The Swindon star finally holed out at the fourth attempt, knowing only a minor miracle would result in him being propelled back into contention.
Asked afterwards by myself if pressure had been a factor, Howell admitted he had sensed it, particularly bearing in mind his bogey at the previous hole.
If the Wiltshireman is to win on the European Tour once more, and his form of the last eighth months suggests he might not be far away, these are the moments he must conquer.
The whole episode brought to mind a chapter of the excellent book ‘Bounce’ by the former British table tennis number one, Matthew Syed.
Syed goes into great detail explaining the reasons for ‘a choke’, a moment where a sportsperson’s natural ability evades them because they change the way they view the situation.
He concludes that the only way of avoiding a choke is to convince yourself that what you are doing has no value or importance. The outcome has no bearing on anything. It is meaningless.
That of course is easier said than done. In my view the top sports stars only cope with pressure. Has any professional sportsperson ever truly convinced themselves that what they are doing is totally unimportant? I don’t think so.
Howell believes his ‘coping’ level has increased in recent times, given that he is now more used to being at the higher end of the leaderboard once more.
If he can take it up just one more notch, I fancy that title - which he would so dearly love - will come his way.
Just relax a bit more, Howeller. After all, it’s only a game.