RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Luke Donald and Charles Howell III both had their chances to win the first full-field event of the PGA season yesterday.
Sony slips through Howell’s hands
Charles Howell III had just missed his fifth cut in a row at the same tournament Dean Wilson would eventually win in a playoff.
Howell was anxious to do something to change his golf game after a long bout with close calls. Once considered the next big thing in American golf, Howell is now just another professional trying to make it on the PGA Tour. And struggling a bit at that.
Since being named rookie of the year in 2001 and winning a tournament in 2002, Howell has a four-year stretch of coming in second seven times with 21 top-10 finishes. Granted, he isn't making regular visits to the Q-school to get back his card, but he isn't spending any time in the winner's circle, either.
"I think I panicked a little bit last year and quit working with (swing coach) David (Leadbetter) and went working with other people," Howell said. "Sort of like the Office Depot commercial, sort of hit the red button. I sort of went looking elsewhere. I did get frustrated last year. Didn't really know if I was on the right path or not, which is why I went looking for other golf teachers.
"During that time, I didn't play well at all. I played horrible, actually, during the summer. But I think looking back on it, it makes me 100 percent comfortable with where I am, working with David and his assistants. Plus, too, I feel that I'm a little bit under the radar, if you will, which is nice."
Not that Leadbetter killed the fatted calf and welcomed back his prodigal son without a bit of a lecture. After missing the cut at the International, Howell flew to Florida to meet with one of Leadbetter's assistants. It was here he started to turn things around. He even called Leadbetter in England at 1 a.m. to let him know he wanted back in. An hour later, Howell got his response.
"I think when I left him, I think David knew I would be back," Howell said. "He was extremely supportive. He didn't say one cross word about anything. He was very open. He said, 'Charles, you do what you need to do.' And he said, 'Again, I think of you like a son. I want to see you successful. If you think you can play better under someone else, please do that.'
"It had to be 1 a.m. in England, but the guy doesn't sleep. He's Batman, really. So I left a voicemail thinking, 'Oh, I've got another day to face this.' He called back, it was about 2 a.m. England time. I got my 30 minutes of lecture, which is fair enough. I took it. And it was just fine. It's been great ever since."
Great wouldn't describe how Howell felt after yesterday's dramatic loss to Paul Goydos at the Sony Open in Hawaii. This is the third time Howell has held a 54-hole lead and been unable to cash in on it. His meltdown at the 18th, where he needed birdie to force a playoff and settled for par and a tie for second with Luke Donald, is more indicative of the Howell of old.
Leadbetter believes Howell must find more fairways and work on his short game. If you see how he played the 18th yesterday, where he missed the fairway and then chipped 17 feet past the hole, it appears more work is needed.
"This one hurts," Howell said of comparing his loss at the 84 Lumber Classic to this one. "You know, 84 Lumber, I probably wasn't ready to win that tournament. I had played good golf. The golf course fit me really well. If there's horses for courses, that's mine. This one here is not my style of golf course.
"It's a bit narrow, it's windy, it's tree-lined. I think this is much more of a Luke Donald-style course. So it showed that my short game and scoring ability had improved to get here. The end of the day, I just didn't play well enough again on the back nine and I finished second again."
Howell held a two-shot lead at the turn, but played the back nine in 2-over 37, clearing the way for Goydos to get his first win in 11 years. Howell doesn't want to wait that long for his next victory. He is one of the under-30 set in America who has struggled to find the winner's circle often enough in some folks' eyes. Just don't count Howell, who is 27, among them.
"I think it's ridiculous," Howell said. "I don't understand it, to be honest with you. I don't even want to comment on it. I think it's ridiculous. I think American golf under 30 is fine. If you look across the board, if you look at the guys playing nowadays, I don't buy into that. No."
Perhaps not. But a win yesterday would have done more to silence the critics than playing the easiest hole on the course in par. And then blaming its design in the interview room.
"I think I read in the locker room, 14 percent of the balls hit the 18th fairway last year," Howell said. "Does it maybe register something's wrong with that when you've got the best players in the world? So you hit a shot there, you know pretty much no matter what, that ball is going to finish in the rough.
"So it's a guess now, is it (the second shot) going to jump and it didn't. But, if you are going to win the golf tournament and win it comfortably, then you've got to put the ball in the fairway and just keep getting chance after chance after chance. They are not easy fairways to hit with the crosswinds. But it's still no excuse."