Augusta native Charles Howell will get to do something next week he hasn’t done for more than a decade – defend a tournament title.
Howell, who is in his 21stseason on the PGA Tour, went more than 11 ½ years without a victory after winning for the second time in the 2007 Los Angeles Open, where he defeated Phil Mickelson in a playoff.
That lengthy winless streak ended last November, when Howell captured the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC in a playoff over Patrick Rodgers with a birdie on the second extra hole.
Howell has been a consistently successful player in his 20 years on the PGA Tour, but has not won as many tournaments as was expected of him after he turned pro following a dominant performance in the 2000 NCAA Championship.
His first win came in his second full season in 2002 at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., and it took him 4 ½ years before he won again in a playoff over Mickelson at the famed Riviera CC.
Even though he was unable to add to his victory total, Howell continued to put together a series of solid seasons on the PGA Tour, finishing outside the top 55 only three times over the next 12 years.
Howell finally put an end to his lengthy winless drought in dramatic fashion a year ago, rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18thhole at Sea Island GC’s Seaside course, the second of the playoff.
Prior to an awful start to his final round, Howell had been in control of the RSM Classic from the opening round. He shot 8-under 64 on the Plantation course to take a 2-shot lead and expanded his margin to three after another 64 the next day on Seaside, a par-70 layout.
Howell went the first 36 holes without a bogey before making three in the third round on Seaside, but retained his lead with five birdies that day for a 68. He began the final round ahead of playing partners Jason Gore and Cameron Champ, who had won on the PGA Tour earlier in the Fall.
When he bogeyed the first hole and each of his playing partners made birdie, Howell found himself a shot behind both. Following a double bogey on the second hole, he was three off the lead and had seemingly shot himself out of the tournament just two holes into the final round.
But Howell played his last 16 holes that day in 7-under, notching six birdies in regulation and the winner on the second playoff hole after missing potential winning putts on the 18thin regulation and on the first extra hole.
Three of those birdies came in succession on holes 15, 16 and 17, as Howell closed fast to match Rodgers, who set a PGA Tour all-time record for lowest final 36 holes with scores of 61 and 62.
After his 2007 win in Los Angeles, Howell spent a lot of years wondering whether he would ever collect a third PGA Tour title.
“I’m not getting any younger, and my competition is staying the same age,” Howell offered after the opening round of the recent Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club.
Reflecting on his win last year, Howell said, “I had thought about getting back in the winner’s circle and I had been in that position a few times and not pulled it off.”
The usually reserved Howell was a little emotional after scoring his first victory in almost a dozen years, and said his immediate reaction was “relief, number one. I wanted my kids to see me win.”
Neither of Howell’s children had been born when he won in Los Angeles, and thanks to his victory and subsequent solid play, they will get to spend a second straight year in their father’s hometown for Masters week, which was a big deal to their dad when he was their age.
Howell’s win at Sea Island GC last year got him back into the Masters field for the first time since 2012 and for just the second time since 2008. The previous 10 years had consisted of a number of close calls at qualifying for the event, but Howell had consistently come up short, whether it was a top-30 finish in the final FedExCup standings, a top 50 position in the World Golf Rankings at the end of the calendar year or a week prior to the Masters, or an elusive third career victory.
Boosted by his victory in the RSM Classic, Howell was No. 1 in the FedExCup standings when the PGA Tour took its brief end-of-the-year break, and concluded the regular season 15thon the points list. He made it to the Tour Championship despite so-so results in the first two Playoffs events, earning a spot in the 2020 Masters field.
“Well, it was just great,” Howell said of remaining in the top 30 to secure a spot in next year’s Masters. “Because that tournament, I find it extremely hard to get into.
“I found multiple ways to miss out on it. With the number of wins in my career, I don’t like my chances of winning one between now and Augusta, so this was my best way to do it.”
Howell recognized that his win early in the 2018-19 season put him in position to finish in the top 30 for the first time since 2011 and punch his return ticket to Augusta.
“To make it to Atlanta and not squander that opportunity meant a lot to me. That’s my goal every year.”
Howell has come close to a top 30 finish on a number of occasions during his career, but has frequently been disappointed. Had he not made it to East Lake, which comes with an accompanying invite to the Masters, he would have spent the time between the two tournaments sweating his standing in the World Golf Rankings.
He was 51stcoming into the recent WGC event in China, and likely would have faced seven months hovering around the top 50 bubble in an effort to claim a Masters. Thanks to his top 30 FedExCup finish and his standing in the OWGR, he will be in the field for all four majors in 2020 as well as the WGC event in Mexico in February.
Howell needs to stay in the top 64 to earn a spot in the Match Play Championship in March in Austin, where he has played well in recent years. Considering his career record in events on the West Coast, Howell is a good bet to qualify for the Match Play for the fourth straight year.
For much of his career, Howell has established a pattern of playing well on an almost annual basis on the West Coast and on through the Florida swing. But with the exception of occasional strong showings elsewhere, he has usually been absent from leader boards through the Spring and Summer months before re-emerging during the Fall.
“I’ve tried to move my schedule around so I play good at different times, but I just don’t know,” he said of his predilection for enjoying success early and late in the year but not in the middle.
“I’ve been out here twenty years and it is what it is.”
Looking ahead to his early 2020 schedule, which will begin with one his favorite PGA Tour stops – the Hawaiian Open – Howell does not face the necessity to play well to get into the Masters.
“That takes a lot of pressure off. Having to get into it is one thing I don’t have to worry about. Playing your way into the Masters is hard.”
Howell has put together two decades of quality results on the PGA Tour after playing his way onto the PGA Tour in 2001. He played half a season in 2000 after turning pro, placing third in his third start in the John Deere Classic.
Playing with no status in 2001, Howell finished sixth in his second start at TPC Sugarloaf, and added another top 20 two starts later in New Orleans. With finishes of second and third later in the season, he ended up an unofficial 33rdon the money list, and has significantly added to his career earnings every year since.
With his win at Kingsmill in 2002 and a season-ending runner-up finish in the Tour Championship behind Vijay Singh, Howell finished his first full-fledged PGA Tour season ninth in earnings, and was 14ththe next year. With three finishes of second or better in his first five starts of 2007, including his playoff win over Mickelson at Riviera, Howell was 13thin the first ever FedExCup standings despite dismal post-Masters results.
Howell’s first decade on the PGA Tour was marked by a recurring habit of coming up just short when in contention. He placed second nine 12 times between 2001 and ’09 against just two victories, but his name gradually began appearing near the top of leader boards less and less before he recorded his 15thand 16thcareer runner-up finishes in 2017.
Over his 20 years on the PGA Tour, Howell has 95 top 10s and has amassed more than $39 million in earnings, 19thon the all time money list. He will crack the $40 million mark shortly, and has a chance to get his 100thtop 10 before the end of the season. He already has two in his first four starts, tying for fourth in the season opener in Napa, Calif., and for eighth in the PGA Tour’s first ever tournament in Japan.