When Charles Howell turned pro after his junior season at Oklahoma State in 2000, he did so as one of the most heralded golfers in modern history to make the transition from amateur to professional golf.
Howell was one of the top juniors in the country, winning eight American Junior Golf Association events, matching Tiger Woods for second place behind Phil Mickelson with 12. He was the AJGA Player of the Year in 1996 and a four time All-American.
He led Oklahoma State to the 2000 NCAA team championship and won individual honors with a record-setting 23-under 265 total at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Grand National Lake Course in Opelika, Ala. Howell won both the Nicklaus and Haskins awards as the top college player in the country that season.
Howell placed second a few weeks later in a Buy.com (now Web.com) event in Greensboro, N.C., the best showing at that time by an amateur on the tour, and elected to turn pro. In his third start on the PGA Tour as a professional, he placed third in the John Deere Classic.
Due to a change in PGA Tour regulations, he began the 2001 season with no status on the tour, but again played his way into temporary membership thanks to a pair of top-10 finishes in his first four starts of the season, including a T6 in the BellSouth Classic at TPC Sugarloaf.
By the end of the season, Howell had added finishes of second, third and fourth and earned Rookie of the Year honors, even though he still lacked full membership status.
Howell’s first two full seasons on the tour displayed further evidence that he was headed towards a wildly successful career. He finished ninth on the money list in 2002, scoring his first win at Kingsmill in Virginia before closing out the year with a runner-up finish in the Tour Championship at East Lake behind Vijay Singh.
Although he did not win in 2003, he recorded a pair of runner-up finishes, including a repeat in the Tour Championship, played that year in Houston. He ended up 14th on the money list and concluded the year as part of the U.S. Presidents Cup team. Howell paired with Tiger Woods is all four team sessions and helped the Americans retain the cup with a 5&4 drubbing of Adam Scott in singles.
More than 15 years later, Howell’s first two full seasons turned out to be his best two ever as a pro. He won just once over the next 15 years, qualified for the Tour Championship three times and made it onto only one more national team – the 2007 Presidents Cup.
Howell scored his second PGA Tour victory in ’07, defeating Mickelson in a playoff in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera CC, but did not win again for more than 12 ½ years, ending his lengthy drought Sunday in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC.
During his career, Howell has earned more than $37 million and is one of just 10 players (Mickelson among them) to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs all 12 years they have been held.
But after his auspicious first few years as a pro, Howell has settled into a career marked more by what he hasn’t done than what he has.
Howell has earned a lot of money in his 19 years on tour, but has been just another consistent performer the last 15 years-plus, playing well in lower and middle tier events but never taking the stage during golf’s majors.
In 45 starts in golf’s Grand Slam events, Howell has exactly one top 10 – a tie for 10th in the 2003 PGA Championship. The next year, he tied for ninth at the WGC event at Firestone CC, his only top 10 in one of the World Golf Championship tournaments. Almost half his WGC starts have come in the Match Play Championship, where he has yet to advance beyond the round of 16 in 10 career appearances.
But it’s not just that Howell hasn’t played especially well in golf’s big events. Over the last decade, he has rarely been in the field for the game’s most significant tournaments, with the exception of the PGA Championship, which is by far the easiest one to get into.
Howell has qualified for the Match Play three times the last 10 years, the Doral/Mexico event twice and has not been back to Firestone since 2009. He made his only appearance in the HSBC Champions in 2017, thanks in part to higher-ranked players electing not to travel to China that year.
After playing in the U.S. Open eight straight years from 2001-09, Howell has qualified just twice since, playing his way into the championship in a 36-hole qualifier earlier this year.
But the one event that has most painfully been missing from his schedule is the Masters, which is played annually in his hometown of Augusta. Howell has lived in the Orlando area since his early days as a tour pro, but retains close ties to Augusta, even though he has not competed there professionally for some time.
Howell made seven consecutive starts in the Masters from 2002-08, but has made it into the field just one time since, that coming in 2012 when he enjoyed one of his better showings, tying for 19th.
For much of his career, Howell has hovered around two of the qualification criteria for earning invitations to the Masters – a spot in the Tour Championship field and a top 50 World Ranking either at the end of the calendar year or the week prior to Augusta.
Howell has come close to both more times than he can count, but with the exception of his last Tour Championship appearance in 2011, he has been on the outside looking in every other year over the past decade.
It’s become an almost annual thing for Howell to start the FedExCup Playoffs ranked n the 20s or 30s but failing to make it to East Lake, or approaching the Masters within reach of a top 50 ranking but coming up short.
As a result, Howell has become accustomed to having a return trip to Augusta barely elude his gasp almost every year since 2009.
Of a possible spot in the Masters field in 2019, Howell said, “It did come into my mind earlier this week when I was leading” the RSM Classic. “When I made that putt (to win), that wasn’t my first thought –that was more relief – but then shortly thereafter, the Masters came into my mind.
“Obviously it means a lot to me, being from Augusta. But it means a lot to every player, right? Every golfer in the world knows what the Masters is, so I’m nothing special on that. But that tournament, that atmosphere, just everything. It’s tough at home to sit back and watch that on television.”
Between not winning a tournament in 12 years and playing in the Masters just once in the last decade, Howell has experienced his share of professional frustration.
“Golf is a brutal game. The highs of the highs, it comes with a lot of really low lows. It’s a wonderful lesson to be learned, that if you truly believe in what you’re doing, to stay the course.”
Howell’s victory at Sea Island GC was worth a lot to him in addition to the check for $1,152,000, the largest of his career.
In addition to earning a covered invitation to the 2019 Masters, Howell will also open the year in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. Howell has enjoyed some of the best weeks of his career in the Hawaiian Open at Waialae CC in Honolulu, but will also get the exceedingly different experience of playing the Plantation Course at Kapalua for the first time since 2008.
Thanks to his victory, Howell’s spot in the FedExCup standings went from 62nd to first, and he will enjoy that status until the PGA Tour schedule resumes the first week of January in Hawaii. The last time Howell held the No. 1 spot came in 2007, when he began the season with a tie for second in the Hawaiian Open, was second two weeks later in San Diego and won the LA Open three weeks after that.
Howell has typically played his best golf on the West Coast, and if can continue his success in Hawaii, southern California and Phoenix, has a chance to all but lock up a spot in the 2019 Tour Championship at East Lake, which would result in a second straight invite to the Masters.
The win also improved Howell’s World Golf Ranking from 84 to 61. If it holds, that will get him into the Match Play Championship in Austin in late March. Five weeks before that is the WGC Mexico Championship, and all Howell needs to do to qualify for that is stay in the top 10 in the FedExCup standings.
Howell became the latest veteran player to have his career path take a positive turn around the age of 40 or a few years on the other side. Howell turns 40 next June, and has a chance to enjoy his best year on tour since he was in his 20s.
Although Howell has had a few years in his career when his FedExCup rank fell below the age for drawing Social Security, he has mostly been a fixture in the 20s, 30s or 40s, even without doing much in the majors or WGC events.
In recent years, Howell has taken a liking to the PGA Tour’s season-opening swing through Asia, and got his 2018-19 schedule off to a good start with a tie for fifth in Thailand, his third career top 10 in the relatively new event.
While most of Howell’s successes have come on the West Coast, the Georgia coast, Florida’s Gulf Coast (Tampa) and Texas, he has a habit of finishing second or third in PGA Tour stops in places that no longer have a tour event – Washington, D.C., upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, Milwaukee).
If Howell is going to enjoy his best season since 2007, he will need to emulate his play from the summer of 2011, when he record four top-5 finishes in a two-month span, one of them on a course that will host a WGC event this year (TPC Southwind in Memphis).
Howell has dealt with disappointment for most of his PGA Tour career, but will have to contend with success in 2019. The last time he won, he went from mid-March through the rest of the 2007 season without a top-10 finish, something he sincerely hopes will not repeat itself this time.