KAPALUA, Hawaii — There are a lot of perks for winning on the PGA Tour. The most luxurious being a ticket to paradise for last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, where whales breech in the distance, WAGs lounge at the nearby Ritz Carlton and players are treated to no cut and free money and World Ranking points. Of course not everyone takes advantage of the spoils—Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson weren’t there despite each having won for the first time in five years last season.
Charles Howell III?
“I gladly signed up,” said the 39-year-old.
His winless drought was a little longer than Woods’ and Mickelson’s. Howell’s playoff victory at last November’s RSM Classic was his first in 11 years and nine months, a span of 333 starts.
“It’s been [more than] 10 years but in one sense it has gone really fast and in another it’s felt like a lifetime,” Howell said at Kapalua, where he finished tied for 14th at 10 under par, 13 strokes back of winner Xander Schauffele. “You get caught out here in a schedule and a season goes, a season goes, a season goes and in that sense it’s fast. The other sense, there’s been a couple of kids, a lot of other changes and a few gray hairs.”
Some of those gray hairs no doubt came from Howell’s weekly routine of checking the Official World Golf Rankings and doing the math on what he needed to do to crack the top 50 to qualify for his favorite tournament, the Masters. Only once in the past decade (in 2012) has the Augusta native earned an invitation to his favorite golf tournament.
Another way to earn one is winning a regular tour event. But that’s something Howell wasn’t sure would ever happen again.
Before Howell even turned pro in 2000, many had him pegged for stardom. A longtime David Leadbetter pupil, he’d led Oklahoma State to a national championship and roped the individual title, too, while being honored as the top collegiate player in the country. He finished third in the John Deere Classic in just his third event as a professional, and in 2001 was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year. He also hit the ball a mile and looked like he might be a rival to Woods for years to come.
Instead, he won just twice (in 2002 and 2007) in more than 15 years and garnered just one career top-10 in a major, at the 2003 PGA Championship, where he tied for 10th. Howell has hardly been a bust, though. He has 90 career top-10s and more than $37 million in earnings, which places him 20th on the all-time money list.
Still, the gray started getting grayer, and all the new kids on the block were suddenly hitting it farther than he was—and winning more often, too.
Then came the RSM last fall. Howell opened with a pair of 64s and on Sunday birdied 15, 16 and 17 to force a sudden-death playoff with Patrick Rodgers. On the second extra hole, Howell made a 20-footer for birdie for his third career victory in 529 starts.
“For a change, when I had a chance to do something I did something good,” he said. “There was a time where I thought it maybe wasn’t in the cards, that I wasn’t going to win again and maybe I’d just have nice career.
“Justin Thomas comes out wins right away, Bryson DeChambeau wins four times in one year; they’re all 25 and hit it miles. But to win again is great. It’s a good reminder to stay on my game.”
And an even better reminder of what came with it: A spot in the field in Maui but even more so an invitation to the Masters.
“For a while it was looking like my best chance to go back was [my son] qualifying for Drive, Chip and Putt,” said Howell, whose best finish at Augusta in eight starts has been a T-13 in 2004. “I’m giddy about it because I’m excited to go back there with my perspective now as opposed to before. I’ll appreciate being there more, enjoy being there more. I won’t let myself get anxious and nervous.”
Nor does he need to worry about checking the world rankings, either.
“No, not now,” he said. “I can give it a break, at least until April.”