After a strong start to the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, Augusta native Charles Howell was 18th in the FedExCup standings after the Heritage Classic, played the week after the Masters.
Howell was absent from the PGA Tour for 2 ½ months after the Heritage due to a rib injury, and when he returned to action at the annual tour stop in Washington, D.C., he had slipped to 33rd in the standings.
When the tournament at TPC Potomac ended, Howell was back in 18th after losing in a playoff to Kyle Stanley, dropping his career playoff record to 1-4.
Howell shot a final round 66, with playing partner Stanley matching that score. The two tied at 7-under 273, with both beginning the final round four shots off the lead. With the other players ahead of them after three rounds all falling back on Sunday, Howell and Stanley were able to emerge as the main challengers, with Howell playing his last 11 holes on a difficult course in 4-under to pull even with Stanley after driving the green on the par-4 14th for eagle.
After playing a superb final round, Howell made bogey on the first playoff hole, missing the green on the par-4 18th with his approach and failing to get up and down. He narrowly missed winning the tournament with a birdie at the 18th in regulation, but his birdie attempt was a fraction of an inch wide of the cup.
After being out of action for 10 weeks, Howell showed no signs of his absence, although he admitted after the tournament, “Going into the week I was extremely rusty. I really can’t believe how well I played.”
As a consolation prize, Howell earned second place money of $766,800 and secured one of four spots in the upcoming British Open that were reserved for the top finishers in the tournament. Howell also moved back into the top 20 in the FedExCup standings, which puts him in position to qualify for the Tour Championship and receive an invitation to the 2018 Masters in his home town.
Howell has played in the Masters just once since 2008, as the second half of his 18-year PGA Tour career has not been as successful as his early years as a pro.
The 38-year-old Howell turned pro in 2000 after a heralded career as a junior and collegian. He won the NCAA Championship in 2000 at the Robert Trent Jones Trail Lake Course at Grand National in Opelika, Ala., and tied for second in a Web.com Tour event in Greensboro, N.C., in his final appearance as an amateur.
In just his third start on the PGA Tour, Howell finished third in the John Deere Classic and played the remainder of the 2000 season on the tour. He had to make it through Q school later that year to earn a spot on the 2001 PGA Tour, but failed in his effort, and began the 2001 season with no status.
In his second start of ’01 he placed sixth in the Bell South Classic at TPC Sugarloaf and was seventh a few weeks later in New Orleans. For the second straight year, he earned status on the tour with his performance during the season and ended the year 33rd on the money list after not earning a check until the week before the Masters.
Among the highlights of Howell’s 2001 season was the first of what has turned out to be many runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour. He shot 64 in the final round in Milwaukee, but lost in a playoff to Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama, the first of his 16 career second place showings on the PGA Tour and the first of four playoff losses.
In his first full season on the PGA Tour in 2002, Howell won a PGA Tour event at Kingsmill in Virginia and finished the year ninth on the money list. He ended the season by placing second in his first start in the Tour Championship at East Lake, and again was the runner-up in the Tour Championship the next year in Houston to finish 14th on the money list. He wrapped up a splendid second full season with an appearance in the Presidents Cup, but it turned out to be the only time he has qualified for either the Presidents or Ryder Cup.
Although he has amassed $33.3 million in career earnings (he is 21st on the list), Howell has never finished as high on the money list in the 13 years since then. He’s finished as high as 18th, that coming in 2007 when he scored his second PGA win in Los Angeles, winning a playoff against Phil Mickelson. He also has two other top 30 finishes, the most recent coming in 2011 when he made his last start at East Lake, tying for sixth.
In the nine full seasons since he last won on tour, Howell has finished 60th or lower on the money list four times, and has been higher than 45th just twice. He’s made 378 cuts as a pro, racked up 84 top 10s and has 25 finishes of second or third. But he has just two wins in 488 starts and a pretty dismal record in the majors, where has been MIA for most of the past 10 years.
Howell played in the Masters seven straight years from 2002-08, but has competed in his hometown major just once, tying for 19th in 2012.Howell made eight consecutive starts in the U.S. Open beginning in 2001, but has also competed in the event just once since, that coming in 2012 courtesy of his top 30 finish in the FedExCup standings the year before. Since tying for 18th in 2002, Howell has not finished higher than 35th in the U.S Open.
A tie for 28th in 2011 is Howell’s best ever finish in the British Open, and he will be playing in the tournament for the first time this month since 2012. He qualified for the tournament last year but could not play because of an injury.
Howell also missed last year’s PGA Championship because of the injury, the first time he missed out on golf’s final major of the season since his first season as a pro in 2000. Howell was 26th in his first PGA appearance at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001, tied for 10th in the event two years later and was 22nd the last time the PGA was played at AAC in 2011.
A strong finish in the two remaining majors on the 2017 schedule will boost Howell’s hopes of making a second Presidents Cup start. His runner-up finish in D.C. boosted him from 28th to 16th in the Presidents Cup standings, and he is within range of earning a spot on the team.
Howell will be looking to conclude the 2017 season in a similar fashion to the way he started it. Beginning with the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC, the final 2016 event on the tour’s wraparound schedule, Howell placed 13th, 8th, 12th, 2nd in San Diego and 15th in five straight starts. He made it to the last 16 of the WGC Match Play event several weeks later, and as he has done multiple times in his career, came close to earning a spot in the Masters field before falling short.
Once again, Howell is in position to secure an invitation to the event that means the most to him of any in golf, and a decent finish to the 2016-17 season will put him in line for a tee time in Augusta early next April.