WILTSHIRE'S David Howell admits he worried whether he would ever make another Open Championship appearance after a career slump which threatened his future in the game.
In 2006 the Swindon-born professional was inside the world's top 10 and on the verge of recording a second Ryder Cup victory with Europe.
But without warning injury and loss of form sent the two-time Ryder Cup star's career on a downward spiral which was only really arrested with last year's Dunhill Links victory which effectively earned him a place back at The Open for the first time since 2009.
The 39-year-old has the honour of hitting the first tee shot on Thursday at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake and he will enjoy the moment as he knows he could easily have been commentating rather than playing had he not turned things around.
"You certainly worry. I was playing poorly enough for a couple of years to think about what was I going to be able to achieve going forward," Howell, who took on a job as Sky Sports pundit during his lean years, said.
"I still had a love for the game but I guess it was becoming a love-hate relationship and it is not a lot of fun to play professional golf when you are playing really poorly.
"It might seem like a dream job but it can be pretty depressing at times.
"The great thing about golf is it is always within your own hands to sort things out and you haven't got to be picked by a manager, your results do the talking.
"That is the toughness of the game but also the beauty of it: as long as you start putting lower scores on the board you can fight your way back.
"I love golf, I love my life on the tour and all the things which come with it but the pre-requisite is you have to be playing at least reasonably well for it to be enjoyable.
"I just wanted to get back, initially just back being able to enjoy golf. It wasn't about getting out there and winning again.
"It was a step-by-step thing but I didn't want my career to just ebb away and suddenly just be in the studio or teaching.
"All I've ever done as an adult was be a professional golfer and my desire was to make that continue.
"I am proud of the way I've turned things around in the last couple of years.
"There is a lot of work still to do to get things back to where they were but I am on the right path."
Howell faces a 4.25am alarm call but even that does not bother him.
"I've got seven-month-old twins so it will probably be a lie-in," he added.
"It doesn't feel that long (not playing an Open) to me but obviously it is.
"It is a great championship and not that easy to get into, you've got to be playing great golf somewhere along the line and I am delighted to be back.
"It will be a little thrill for a couple of minutes in its own right."
Howell tees off with 2001 champion David Duval and Sweden's Robert Karlsson while Tiger Woods, who won the third and last of his Claret Jugs here in 2006, starts his first round at 9:04am alongside Argentina's Angel Cabrera and Sweden's Henrik Stenson.
After missing the first two majors of the year following back surgery, Woods returned to action in the Quicken Loans National at the end of June, although he missed the halfway cut at Congressional.
The 14-time major winner has not played competitively since, but completed 12 holes in practice on Saturday and a full round on Sunday and was in buoyant mood.
Double Open champion Padraig Harrington is in the group after Woods along with 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and Korea's KJ Choi, with former world number one Rory McIlroy next out with American Jordan Spieth and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama.
Phil Mickelson gets the defence of his title under way at 2:05pm in the company of 2012 winner Ernie Els and current Masters champion Bubba Watson, with Scottish Open winner Justin Rose out two groups later with world number one Adam Scott and former US PGA champion Jason Dufner.
US Open champion Martin Kaymer begins his bid for a second major of the year at 1:38pm alongside Australian Jason Day and former Masters champion Zach Johnson.
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