More than 20 years ago, I was asked by a magazine to write a story about Charles Howell III who had left Oklahoma State early and was a kid on the front end of a rocket ride to greatness.
The magazine and many of the rest of us thought Howell was going to be golf’s next big thing, a skinny youngster capable of taking on and taking down the game’s giants.
We had dinner at the Howell family home in Augusta, Georgia, and talked about life as much as we talked about golf. The family told stories of how Charles would spend his weekend nights riding an exercise bike at home rather than going out on dates when he was in high school.
Howell was already accustomed to the attention given his spectacular junior career and, after dinner, he sat in the living room and autographed some items that had been sent to him.
I remember Howell grabbing a red Sharpie to sign a flag and saying, “They don’t like it when you sign in red because it’s harder to sell.”
Here we are more than two decades later and Howell is making his 600th PGA Tour start this week at the WM Phoenix Open, an accomplishment the tour recognized on Wednesday.
It’s a milestone for sure. There are 68 other players who have teed it up at least 600 times on tour but Howell intends to keep climbing the list. At age 42, Howell has no plans to quit playing. In fact, Howell was asked Wednesday if he will reach 700 career starts.
“I’ll get there,” Howell said. “It will take a little time, but I’ll get there. I can’t believe I got to 600, but I have gray hair to prove every one of those starts.”
Given the projections for Howell’s career when he turned pro 22 years ago fresh off a record-setting NCAA championship at Oklahoma State, it’s easy to say he’s underachieved. Howell has just three PGA Tour victories and one top-10 finish in 50 major championship starts. He’s played on two Presidents Cup teams (in 2003 and 2007) and never made a Ryder Cup team.
But Howell is like an actor who rarely plays the star but you recognize him instantly. It’s like he’s always there, always a part of one story or another, a part of the fabric.
Howell has made the cut in more than three-quarters of the tournaments he has played and that’s far harder than it sounds. That’s great for what will come back to him through the PGA Tour’s generous pension plan. He’s finished 97 times in the top 10 and the bittersweet reality is Howell has finished second or third 26 times.
He’s caught his share of bouquets and in a recent interview with the tour’s website Howell said, “I never wanted to be the best.”
That’s quite a statement.
Maybe he did and ran into a guy named Tiger Woods and reset his goals.
More than anything, Howell just wanted to play the tour.
With more than $41 million in career earnings, only 21 players have ever made more money on the PGA Tour than Howell. And he’s made a lifetime’s worth of friends with his chatty personality and sense of humor.
Time has a funny way of slipping by and hearing Howell reminisce about his time on tour seems almost odd. It suggests he’s gotten old – and maybe he has by tour time – but he still doesn’t seem like one of the old guard.
Howell and his wife, Heather, have two children now and maybe the pressure to perform isn’t quite what it was, but Howell has mastered his profession on his terms.
He played his first PGA Tour event as a 17-year old at the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens in 1996. Howell remembers playing with Hugh Royer and Jumbo Elliott in a tournament that was shortened to 36 holes and that he shot 80 in his first tour round.
“It could only get better from there,” Howell said.
“The young players, now they come straight out and win. … now we have this awesome young talent. It’s bigger and better than ever.” – Charles Howell III
If players were asked privately whose career they would like to have, a lot of them would be more than satisfied with Howell’s career. He’s been a walking ATM since he started, he’s found a balance that works for him and his family and he’s happy.
The PGA Tour is different from when Howell arrived but in many ways, he’s the same guy and that’s a good thing.
“I came out with myself, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, David Gossett, Bryce Molder, Luke Donald. We had this mentality (that) it’s going to take some time to win,” Howell said.
“I played practice rounds with Corey Pavin, I played practice rounds with Jeff Sluman. I picked their brains a lot. ‘Hey, how do you do this? What do you do here?’
“Jesper Parnevik was another player I spent a whole lot of time with. He influenced my fashion, sadly, for a couple years, but we all make mistakes.
“The young players, now they come straight out and win. Viktor Hovland, he feels like a little brother to me. He played at Oklahoma State, as well. We may have a degree between both of us. But I have just watched him come out and win right away and go to (No. 3) in the world.
“I could never imagine golf past Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. I thought that was just the end of time when those guys get older and move on. But now we have this awesome young talent. It’s bigger and better than ever.”
Now it’s someone else’s turn to be the next big thing and Charles Howell III is still out there.
And still happy to be there.
Top photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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