Playing for keeps

Charles Howell III will get his shot
at winning the Mercedes Championship
when the elite field of 2002
tournament champions gather
at the Plantation course on Maui

First-time winners
A close look at the Plantation Course at Kapalua
2003 PGA Tour Schedule
2003 Champions Tour Schedule
Full Court Press

Special to the Star-Bulletin

Of the record 18 first-time winners on the PGA Tour in 2002, the most watched, the most celebrated and the least surprising was Charles Howell III.

His breakthrough victory at the 2002 Michelob Championship at Kingsmill has earned him a return trip to the place where he and his wife spent their honeymoon in 2001, Kapalua, for the $5 million Mercedes Championships.

Although he played a leisurely round during that initial visit, Howell now will get his first crack at the renowned Plantation Course under tournament conditions. His long-ball aptitude is bound to be an asset in attacking the 7,263-yard, par-73 layout designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

"I'm familiar with the course and I'm looking forward to beginning the year in Maui," said Howell, 23, who married his wife, Heather, in June 2001. "We're playing a great golf course, one that's a lot of fun. And I know whatever happens it's going to be an enjoyable week."

Howell has been a golf phenomenon since grade school. A college All-American and NCAA champion, Howell's reputation was accentuated by the fact that he happened to hail from the world-renowned golf mecca of Augusta, Ga. Moreover, in 2001, he became the first player since Tiger Woods to earn his Tour card through sponsor's exemptions.

From then on he has been impressive. Howell fired a gutsy final-round 67 on the River Course at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., to hold off Scott Hoch and Brant Jobe to capture what was the final Michelob Championship.

It was a hard-fought triumph. But the 2001 rookie of the year believes he has discovered what actually goes into winning on Tour.

"In a sense I felt it was easier than I thought it would be, but on the other hand, it was a little bit tougher," he said. "It was easier in the fact that I was really worried about just the next shot in front of me and not a result.

"It was fun to play the next week because you get a lot of congratulations and you meet a few new friends. You sort of belong, join the winner's circle, so to speak. Sergio (Garcia) called and left a message on my phone and said, 'Welcome to the club.' It gives you a sense of belonging."

Howell reached his goal of qualifying for the Tour Championship, and he earned $2.702 million (ninth on the PGA Tour money list) and posted seven top-10 finishes in 32 starts. A second and third place were mixed in and he added 16 top 25s.

His scoring average was similar to the year prior -- 70.02 compared to 69.91 in 2001 -- as was his 293.7 driving distance, which ranked fourth on the Tour. Though he improved considerably in putting after making a few minor adjustments, Howell says he is determined to improve his short game in the new season.

"I'll be working on a lot of short game," he says. "I still think the most important club in the bag is the driver, but the putter is up there as well. They're neck and neck, I guess. But I'll still spend a lot more time on the short game."

Of course, there's one aspect of the game that matters most of all -- the mental side. His victory at the Michelob Championship didn't make the game any easier, but it did make coping with contention less perplexing.

"In the past I've struggled from getting too far ahead of myself, maybe thinking about winning or thinking about something I shouldn't be thinking about," he explains. "Going into tournaments now, I just simply try to play golf."

Mercedes Championships

Sergio Garcia will defend his title in this star-studded field.

Who: 2002 PGA Tour winners.
When: Thursday through Sunday.
Where: Plantation Course, Kapalua, Maui, 7,263 yards, par-73.
Time: 7 a.m., Thursday and Friday; 7:30 a.m., Saturday; 8 a.m., Sunday.
Prize money: $5 million, Winner's share: $1 million.
Defending champion: Sergio Garcia
Tickets: $70 season pass (Jan. 6-12), $20 three-day practice round (Jan. 6-8), $20 Thursday or Friday, $30 Saturday and Sunday. Children 16-and-under free when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult. To purchase tickets, call Ticketmaster at 1-877-804-0472 or visit or
TV: ESPN, 2-5:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday; 2:30-5:30 p.m. Saturday; 3-5 p.m. Sunday.
Shuttle bus service: Will be available from the Queen Kaahumanu Center, Maalaea Harbor Village, Lahaina Cannery Mall, Whaler's Village, Maui Marriott and Hyatt Regency.


First-time winners

Jerry Kelly
Sony Open in Hawaii

Matt Gogel
AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Len Mattiace
Nissan Open

Kevin Sutherland
Accenture Match Play Championship

Ian Leggett
Touchstone Energy Tucson Open

Matt Kuchar
Honda Classic

Craig Perks
The Players Championship

K.J. Choi
Compaq Classic of New Orleans

Chris Smith
Buick Classic

Spike McRoy
B.C. Open

Craig Parry
NEC Invitational

Chris Riley
Reno-Tahoe Open

John Rollins
Bell Canadian Open

Charles Howell III
Michelob Championship

Phil Tataurangi
Invensys Classic at Las Vegas

Bob Burns
The Disney Golf Classic

Jonathan Byrd
Buick Challenge

Luke Donald
Southern Farm Bureau Classic

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