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Hoping for hometown advantage

Former college star Charles Howell III fulfills his childhood dream of playing Augusta National.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 8, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- His hometown is also the most famous dateline in golf, a place where any aspiring player can't help but think of one day playing in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

Charles Howell III gets to fulfill that dream this week, playing the first major championship of the year almost in his back yard.

Howell, 22, one of a growing list of potential stars on the PGA Tour, lived 3 miles west of the storied course.

"I'm looking forward to this more than I could ever explain," Howell said.

He is the baby-faced son of pediatrician Charles Jr., who joined adjacent Augusta Country Club so his son could learn to putt on bent grass greens. Charles III first went to the Masters 15 years ago when another Augusta native, Larry Mize, chipped in to defeat Greg Norman in a playoff.

Now he'll play in the 66th Masters with both.

"Going to the tournament for that long, it's always been a dream," he said. "Growing up in Augusta and playing golf in Augusta, it's always a dream."

Howell began playing golf at 7, and within a few years he was working with noted golf instructor David Leadbetter at Orlando's Lake Nona. The Howell family made monthly journeys to Orlando, where not only did Charles work with Leadbetter, but he saw the teacher impart his knowledge to players such as Nick Price, Norman and Nick Faldo.

Soon Howell was winning junior tournaments, and he went on to star at Oklahoma State, where he won the NCAA title in 2000 and was a two-time first-team All-American.

"When he came to Lake Nona to work with Lead, I think he was 11. He was knee high to a grasshopper," Price said. "If the wind blew too hard, he fell over. But when he got to about 16, that's when he all of a sudden started hitting it 25 yards by me.

"His work ethic is something to be admired. He's up there with Vijay (Singh) when it comes to pounding balls. He can move a bit of turf in a day."

And he can move the golf ball a long way. Despite his wiry frame that carries no more than 150 pounds, Howell can belt it into Tiger Woods' territory. He averages 287 yards off the tee, ranking 14th on tour.

He turned pro after winning in the NCAA in 2000, played in 13 events, but failed to earn his tour card at the qualifying tournament. That left him with sponsor exemptions last year, and in his sixth tournament, he made enough money for temporary status. He played 24 tournaments, earning $1.784-million.

Howell went from 324th in the world to 45th (he is now 40th) and became the first with no official world tour status to qualify for the Masters in the modern era.

Along with players such as Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, he is hailed as one of the game's best young players, a challenger to Woods.

"There's obviously expectations that go along with that, but if people aren't saying it, then they don't think you're very good," said Howell, who has not won a tournament. "I like being in that role. It won't change me a whole lot, and hopefully it won't change the way I look at things and see things. There's going to be days when you think you're better than Tiger Woods, there's going to be days you think you can't come close to him. But overall, I take that as a compliment."

"He hasn't won yet, but it's coming," Woods said. "You can see the signs. He's really close to breaking through. It's just a matter of time. And I think going home at Augusta is going to be great for him and his family and his friends. It's going to be a very special moment for him."

Howell first played Augusta National when he was 10. He parred the 18th for 79. Though his parents are not members of the club, they are friends with someone who is, and Charles received several invitations over the years.

As an invited participant, he played the course in the offseason and marveled at the changes.

"It'll be a dream come true to play there," he said. "Obviously when you've thought about something for so long, it's harder for it not to be on your mind. I'm definitely looking forward to it."

And that brings pressure. Maybe more than a non-tour winner should embrace.

"If he doesn't do well this year, it will certainly be a strengthening experience for him," Price said. "It's hard playing at home any time. It will be added pressure for him because it is at home. He's watched that tournament so long now as a kid.

"I would be surprised if he doesn't win it in his career. It's a question of when. He hasn't won a tournament yet, so give the guy a break. I think it's a matter of time before he breaks through, and when he does break though, he's going to win consistently."

If he does so this week, Howell will make history. Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 was the last Masters rookie to win. The only other to win in his first attempt (other than the inaugural tournament in 1934) was Gene Sarazen in 1935.

Howell, who lives in Orlando with his wife Heather, will stay at his parents' house, trying to avoid distractions.

"It won't be crazy," he said. "We'll have the phone off the hook. We'll take a few precautionary measures and we'll be fine. You can bet that it will be special."

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