Keeping Score

Howell finds merit in persistence on Tour

From the town-center breakfast joint to men reflecting on their latest 18 holes with a draft in a chilled mug at the local VFW, those who have an affinity for golf, who’ve watched for any measure of years, have a common knee-jerk refrain when discussing PGA Tour player Charles Howell III.

As in, Why didn’t that kid ever make it?

Well, here’s a flash: He did. He has. He is. If last week’s sermon was on Mayakoba Golf Classic victor Matt Kuchar and the highly undervalued achievement of winning (“Kuchar, Westwood revel in art of winning,” Nov. 13), let us gather up again, flock, and talk Chucky Triple Sticks and the value of simply being there.

Howell won his third PGA Tour title on Sunday, outdueling Patrick Rodgers (who made the cut on the number, then shot 61-62) in a playoff at the RSM Classic at Sea Island’s beautiful Seaside Course (“Keeping score,” Nov. 19). Opening the final round with a one-shot lead, Howell started abysmally (bogey-double), inviting all those self-doubts to creep in, then responded with a torrid finishing run, making birdies at three of his last four holes in regulation before adding one more on the second hole of sudden death.

Fittingly, Howell expected his last putt to lip out on the high side, but when it vanished, victory was his. For him, that’s been rare.

Howell hadn’t won since the 2007 Nissan Open at Riviera, which covers nearly 12 years and some 333 starts. Think of the bushels of practice balls Howell has peppered into fields from Orlando to California between holding those trophies. The very first tournament that he won, the 2002 Michelob Championship, isn’t even around anymore. But Howell is.

This writer walked along as Howell won the individual title at the 2000 NCAA Championship in his junior year at Oklahoma State. Playing in a final group with Kuchar and David Gossett, a pair of U.S. Amateur champions, Howell won by eight, setting a scoring record (23 under). Had he not missed a bunch of 15-footers, he’d have won by twice that many. Howell soon declared that he was turning pro in the height of Tigermania, and you wondered whether the trophy case in his new house was large enough to handle all that he’d be collecting.

But winning is difficult, and Howell, now 39, a runner-up on the PGA Tour some 16 times, hasn’t won nearly as much as we all thought he would. He always has handled that void in his career with an incredible measure of grace. He’d be the first to jump in with a self-deprecating line when you knew that inside, his lack of results tore at him. Reminded on Sunday that it had been a while since he’d spent a late Sunday afternoon in a winner’s news conference, Howell immediately joked that he had walked through the media center on an occasional Sunday on his way to a random drug test.

If the lone measure of a PGA Tour player is victories, you won’t find too many success stories this side of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh. That’s why, in truth, Howell’s run on the PGA Tour since he came out in 2000 is ... amazing. That’s right. Amazing.

Stay with me on this: This is Howell’s 20th season. As a full-time player, only once has he finished outside the top 70 players in earnings (2015, when he was 77th). The fewest number of cuts he has made in a season is 19 (twice). He’s been a machine, really, a testament to consistency, keeping his job each year when an army of long-bombing hopefuls (See Champ, Cameron) are trying to wrestle it away.

Don't feel badly for Howell. Sunday’s RSM winner’s check for $1.152 million lifted him to $37,048,765 in career cash, 20th all-time. Some may say that’s something that’s broken in modern golf, that a player can earn millions without winning more, but it’s a game that teaches how to lose, and they lose a lot. Howell played great all week at Sea Island (he opened by shooting 64-64), but still had to hold off a red-hot player in Rodgers, who blistered the place on the weekend, going 17 under for the final two rounds.

(As a quick aside, Rodgers and Howell have a good deal in common. Rodgers tied Tiger Woods’ record for victories while at Stanford and ran shoulder to shoulder with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, but he still awaits that first PGA Tour victory.)

For nearly two decades, the work never has ceased for Howell. He could have backed off when the victories didn’t come and spent more time at home, but he always shows up for the work. As much as a player can give of himself, there are no guarantees on the other side. That in itself makes golf a maddening game.

“You can speak to any Tour player out here, past or current, and I think they would tell you the same thing, that you can go down a rabbit hole and work and work and work and literally on the back end have nothing come out of it, and I think that's the hardest part to swallow,” Howell said.

This writer has had several conversations with Howell through the years, asking why there hasn’t been a bigger payoff in trophies for him and all that work. He never dodged the question. At the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston a couple of years ago, while he was on the bubble unsuccessfully chasing a spot to his beloved Masters (Howell grew up in Augusta), he said this about not winning more:

“I used to really think about it a lot, stay up at night, and think about why I haven’t won more, why I haven’t done better. I just quit thinking about it ... Not in a sense that I don’t care, but I can’t do any more. I can’t do any more than how I work, and the time in the gym, and the tournaments I play – and I play a lot – I just can’t do any more. Grinding on it, I don’t think it helps anybody.”

Now, Howell isn’t only Augusta-bound once more – he has played the Masters only once since 2008 – but he’s a tournament champion again, too. Good on him. For 20 years, this guy has showed up with his lunch pail and found a way to keep his card. Appreciate that in itself, even if the trophies have been few.

Best of all, it wasn’t that he proved something to the rest of the world on Sunday. With that incredible birdie run at the end, he showed himself something he had waited to see.

“I thought I had it in me,” Howell said, “but I had never seen me do it to prove it to myself … It's kind of like the guy who thinks he can dunk, but if you can't dunk, you just can't do it.

“So, I thought I had it in me. But it took me a bit to actually do it.”

And really, if he’s fine with enduring such a long wait to win, those at the breakfast joint and the VFW should be OK with it, too. With his wife and two children posing next to him and that shiny trophy on Sunday, Chucky Triple Sticks appeared to be a pretty happy guy.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62

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