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David Howell takes first round lead at Irish Open

KILLARNEY, Ireland – England’s David Howell showed a long overdue return to form as he shot a 7-under 64 to take the first-round lead at the Irish Open on Thursday.

The 35-year-old former Ryder Cup player has slumped to 479th in the world after reaching No. 9 in 2006, when he won the PGA Championship. In the past year he has considered retirement after working as a TV commentator during major tournaments for which he had not qualified.

Howell managed five birdies and an eagle at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club on Thursday to take a one-shot lead over Australia’s Richard Green and Ireland’s Damien McGrane.

“I never wanted to give up,” said Howell, “but it crossed my mind that if I carried on playing as I did last year I wouldn’t have a career to be worried about anyway.

“As hard as it was not playing in the majors, when I got into my head the fact that I had dropped off that level, the next best thing was to sit and talk about golf on TV.”

Howell arrived in Ireland with 10 missed cuts on his 2010 record and no finish higher than 14th at The Open de Espana in April. But if he felt like a stranger being back at the top of the leaderboard, it was a different emotion to the players sharing second place.

They both felt like they were in familiar surroundings.

McGrane, once a professional shop pro and with only one European win in his career, could have been overawed when the draw paired him with two recent Irish major winners. But where U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell could only manage a 1-under 71 and Padraig Harrington struggled to a 78, McGrane lifted his game with five birdies during a bogey-free 66.

“I would sooner play with friends of mine like Padraig. Some people are tough to play with but he isn’t, and there was a lot of banter between us,” McGrane said.

Green liked Killarney’s relatively short 7,161-yard layout, saying it suited his game more than many modern tournament venues.

“It’s more like Huntingdale in Melbourne, where I learned to play the game as a youngster,” he said. Killarney is an old-school golf course and I felt comfortable out there. I am a traditionalist I am not one of the longer hitters and over the years on the European Tour courses have just got longer and longer.

“We don’t play many like this on the European Tour. In fact, I would say it was only the second that I have felt comfortable on this year following the Emirates course in Dubai.”

For less than half an hour, McGrane and Green were joined at 6 under by England’s Robert Rock, but he was disqualified for transposing two scores in his 65.

It was another Irish disappointment for the 33-year-old Rock, who last year lost a play off for the Irish Open title to the then-amateur Shane Lowry.