Of the 30 players who competed in last week’s Tour Championship at East Lake, Charles Howell may have felt the biggest sense of relief.
Playing at East Lake was not a new experience for Howell, as it was for four other players in the field. It was Howell’s sixth time at East Lake, with his history in the Tour Championship extending back to the last year it was played outside Atlanta in 2003.
By qualifying for the Tour Championship, Howell earned a spot in next year’s Masters, marking the second straight year the Augusta native has qualified well in advance of his hometown major.
After qualifying for the Masters seven straight times early in his career from 2002-08, Howell spent the next decade making annual runs at a coveted invitation, but too often coming up just short.
From 2009 to 2018, Howell made exactly one start in the Masters, that coming in 2012 after enjoying one of the best seasons in his career the previous year.
Howell continued to put together strings of solid finishes on the PGA Tour, but a dozen years without a victory and several close calls at qualifying for the Masters either through a top-30 finish in the FedExCup or top 50 World Golf Ranking kept him out of August nine times in a 10-year span.
All that changed late last year when Howell collected the third victory in his 20-year PGA Tour career in the RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club. After having gone 1-4 in his first five playoffs, Howell won with a birdie on the second extra hole, earning him a spot in the 2019 Masters.
As a part of the PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule for 2018-19, it also put him in position for a top-30 finish in the FedExCup standings, as he ended the Fall portion of the schedule No. 1 on the points list. He ended the regular season 15th, and after a missed cut and a middle-of-the-pack finish in the two Playoffs events, Howell was back at East Lake last week with his invitation to next year’s Masters, as well as the other 2020 majors assured.
“That tournament, I find it extremely hard to get into,” Howell said after shooting a first round 68 in the Tour Championship last week. “I found multiple ways to just miss out on it.
“When you look at it, if you don’t win a tournament, the only avenue is top 50 in the world, and I’m just outside of that, so top 30 (in the FedExCup) kind of is 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.
“This takes a lot of pressure off to get into it. It’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.”
After making it to the Tour Championship four of six times between 2002 and ’07, Howell spent the next 10 years seemingly on the top 30 bubble near the end of every season. But his track record in the Playoffs is not particularly successful, and with one exception in 2011, he kept missing the top 30 cutoff to make it to both East Lake and Augusta National.
Howell has established a career pattern of annually playing his best golf early in the season on the West Coast, which frequently put himself in a position to move into the top 50 in the OWGR at the cutoff just before the Masters to get into the field.
But he kept coming up just a little short of that mark, keeping him out of both the Masters and the U.S. Open almost every year after 2008.
Howell’s victory last year in the RSM Classic ended a stretch of more than a dozen years without a win, and did more than just getting him into the 2019 Masters.
Howell’s two children, both of who were born several years after his previous victory in 2007 in Los Angeles, had never seen him win a tournament before he claimed the RSM Classic title last Fall.
“I wanted my kids to see me win, “said Howell, with his daughter and son age 8 and 7 when he holed a putt on the 18thgreen at Sea Island GC to let them experience the thrill of victory with him and his wife Heather.
In addition to getting him into the 2019 Masters, the win at Sea Island GC put Howell in excellent position to qualify for East Lake this year, which in turn got him back into the field in Augusta for 2020.
“To make it to Atlanta and not squander that opportunity meant a lot to me,” said Howell, who had qualified for the Tour Championship just once since 2007.
Howell began his 2018-19 season with a tie for fifth in an event in Malaysia that has since dropped off the PGA Tour schedule. After his win at Sea Island, he was No. 1 in the FedExCup standings, and remained in the top 5 following one solid finish after another on the West Coast and Florida swings along with the two early season WGC events.
But as well as Howell has played in his career on the West Coast and various stops in the Southeast and Texas, he has typically recorded indifferent results in the summer months, which includes three of the four majors.
Howell has just one career top 10 in a major – a tie for 10thin the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., one in a WGC event (at Firestone in 2009) and none in the Players. His best showings in one of golf’s elite events were back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Tour Championship in 2002 and 2003, with the ‘02 tournament just the third played at East Lake.
When Howell turned pro in 2000, he was one of the most heralded amateurs to make the jump to the pros. He was the No. 1 ranked junior in the country before leaving Augusta for Oklahoma State, where he won the 2000 Haskins Award and scored a record-setting victory in the NCAA Championship at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Grand National course in Opelika, Ala.
In his first start after leaving Oklahoma State following his junior season, he tied for second as an amateur in Greensboro on what was then known as the Buy.com Tour. He then turned pro and finished third in the John Deere Classic in his third PGA Tour start as a pro.
After failing to reach the finals of Q-school later that year, Howell began the 2001 PGA Tour season with no status, but played his way onto the tour with back-to-back finishes of sixth in Atlanta and seventh in New Orleans. He lost a playoff in Milwaukee and made two more strong runs at victory to earn Rookie of the Year honors even though he was not an official PGA Tour member.
In his first five seasons on tour, Howell finished no lower than 33rdon the money list, and collected his first win in ’02 at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia. But after a great start in 2007, which included a playoff win over Phil Mickelsonin Los Angeles after runner-up showings in Hawaii and San Diego, Howell’s career settled into a rut at a slightly lower level than he played at in his first seven seasons.
Howell has played well enough in his career to earn $38.68 million, 19thon the all-time money list. He has never finished a season outside the top 100 on the money/points list, and has been no lower 55thin 15 of his 19 full seasons.
Considering the expectations for him when he turned pro, Howell may not have enjoyed quite as much success as was predicted for him, but he has been a successful player for his entire career, and is coming off one of best seasons in the year in which he turned 40.
“I’m not getting any younger but the competition stays the same age,” Howell observed. He remained positive after all the close calls and disappointments, but until he ended his winless drought last year, he recognized that his title in Los Angeles in 2007 could be his last.
“That was a relief, number one,” he said of his win last year. “I had been in that position a few times and not pulled it off. Playing your way into the Masters is hard.”
Howell began the Tour Championship 28thin the FedExCup standings, and was one of just five players to start the tournament at even par, as the other 25 were anywhere from 1 to 10-under on the first tee Thursday.
“I’m just glad they didn’t start the leader off at even and us at plus 10. I think that would have been even more humiliating,” he laughed.
Howell started slowly with bogeys on two of his first three holes, but fought back for an opening 68. That turned out to be his only round under par for the tournament. He needed birdies at 16 and 18 Friday for a 73, and recorded his only birdies on the back nine par 3s Saturday for a 71. He was 1-under after 13 holes Sunday with four birdies, but spent most of the 14thhole in the rough and made triple bogey. He bounced back with another birdie at the island green 15th, but settled for a 72 and wound up 4-over for the tournament, finishing 28thin the final FedExCup standings, exactly where he started on Thursday.
The FedExCup payout was $415,000 for Howell, with his official earnings for the season just over $3 million. Statistically, it was a strong season for 40-year-old, who was in the top 50 in strokes gained in every category except approach shots, where he was 124theven though he was seventh in greens in regulation. He was 16thin strokes gained around the green and 43rdin putting, while ranking 32ndin driving distance with an average of 303 yards.
With the 2019-20 season beginning in just two weeks in California, Howell has plenty to look forward to, beginning with his first title defense in more than 12 years at one of his favorite stops on tour. Howell will begin the new year in another of his favorite events – the Hawaiian Open, where he has nine career top 10s.
And after what is always a profitable trek through California, it’s on to his adopted home state of Florida, followed by a second straight appearance in his hometown major that eluded him for so long.