LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | Last November as a hint of winter was blowing a chill across Sea Island with another PGA Tour year coming to a close, 39-year-old Charles Howell III and 23-year-old Cameron Champ found themselves paired together for two days.
There was nothing ceremonial about it, just how it fell together on the weekend at the RSM Classic. But if you went looking for underlying symbolism, it was there in those two players, even though they had not played together until that week.
Nineteen years ago, Howell was what Champ is today – the game’s next big thing.
Howell didn’t have the astonishing power that has defined Champ’s rocket ride to relevance but Howell arrived on the scene as a star, a seemingly sure-fire success. He was on magazine covers and in featured pairings, one of Tiger Woods’ peers.
When Howell and Champ teed it up at Sea Island, Howell was making his 528th start on the PGA Tour with two trophies – and more than $35 million in earnings – in his collection. Champ was making his 12th Tour start as a pro and he already had his first victory.
Howell went on to win the RSM Classic, ending a winless drought that stretched 10 years, nine months. For Howell, the victory brought many things, including an overdue return to the Masters in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., come spring.
Mostly, though, it brought relief and served as a reminder of how difficult winning on the PGA Tour can be.
“I didn’t have the distance (Champ) had even relative to my peers. I had expectations,” Howell said. “Him coming out and winning so fast, I think his expectations have doubled, tripled, etc. In a way he’s done this to himself because of his good play. He’s going to be fun to watch.
“I told him after Sea Island, (he) will win as many golf tournaments as he wants to. As long as he remembers that and remembers how good he is, the expectations will fall away and he’ll just be Cameron Champ.”
Like fingerprints and snowflakes, every player on the PGA Tour is different, even if it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart under their caps. But there are similarities between Howell and Champ, even if they’re from different generations.
“It’s about the people around you, No. 1. He’s good people. I’ve met his dad and he travels a lot which I think is fantastic,” said Howell, whose father has been a fixture at PGA Tour events since his son arrived on the scene.
“There were a lot of expectations on (Howell) that he was going to win a whole bunch. … We’re envious of Charles Howell because he’s done so well.” – Davis Love III
“You have to stay grounded. It’s just golf. Everybody still puts their pants on the same way and everybody has their same issues. If you just remember that.”
Ask Champ about what has helped him make the jump from a talented but win-challenged college player to the new rage on the PGA Tour and he points around him to his family, his coach Sean Foley and others in his tight-knit group.
Watch him work his way through another day at the course and Champ gives no indication he’s caught up in the swirl around him with fans craning to watch him rip drivers toward the horizon.
“I’m not a very attention (seeking) person, I always try to ease my way out of it, I have never been that way,” Champ said.
“I’ve just been playing, I haven’t been worrying about much, just focusing on our game plans on just playing golf and everything else is just kind of pushed to the side.”
When Howell played alongside Champ – who led the Web.com Tour in driving distance at 343 yards last season on the way to earning his PGA Tour card – he imagined him playing Torrey Pines, where they’re both teeing it up this week in the Farmers Insurance Open. He thought about Riviera and Augusta National and other places where the premium on power can pay higher dividends.
“If that guy is driving the ball well, he can hit it so far where you just can’t beat the guy,” Howell said.
If it were only that simple.
Howell knows better than most. He has spent nearly two decades accumulating a fortune on the PGA Tour, becoming one of the most consistently productive players of his or any generation. Howell will turn 40 this summer but has no intention of changing his schedule as he heads toward 600 and then 700 career starts.
He has been good but not great. Howell is the first to admit it. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished and surprised he hasn’t won more but there’s nothing for which to apologize.
“Somebody said the list of guys who have won one time is really long. The list of guys who have won twice is really short,” Davis Love III said. “It’s hard to get a win.
“There were a lot of expectations on (Howell) that he was going to win a whole bunch. A lot of us had that – you should win more than you did. We’re envious of Charles Howell because he’s done so well.”
Before winning at Sea Island, Howell wondered if he’d never win another tournament.
“Maybe that’s just not in the cards for me. Maybe I’ll have a nice career and go on about it,” Howell said.
But Howell did win with Champ watching.
And with him watching Champ.
“I’m always impressed by guys like Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, these guys that seem to come out and win right away and do it often,” Howell said. “I don’t know if that’s a mentality they have that I don’t. I don’t know if they see the game differently than I do but I’m always impressed by those guys.
“Playing with Cameron Champ, it was a good kick to the rear end to continue to work hard and get better.”
Charles Howell III, left, shakes hands with Cameron Champ after they played together in the third round of the RSM Classic in 2018. Photo: Stephen B. Morton, AP
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