ATLANTA — There are 29 guys with 10 million reasons for being happy to be at East Lake this week. Charles Howell needed only one.
Howell already has won something more valuable to him than the FedEx Cup championship, and its $10 million prize, just by being in the field.
Money couldn’t buy the Augusta native’s way into his hometown Masters Tournament the past three years, but qualifying for the Tour Championship guarantees him a trip home next April.
“Obviously the biggest thing is the Masters,” said Howell, who ranks 26th in the PGA Tour’s season-long points race and made it to East Lake for the first time since 2007. “It’s kind of a weird feeling here because it was such a goal to get here, now that I got here it’s like ‘Phew.’ I can almost relax and breathe a bit. This tournament being in Georgia and at East Lake is great, but knowing that I’m in the Masters is a relief.”
Relaxing has not been a big part of Howell’s career the past few years. While it isn’t as though making the Masters is the single-minded focus of his golf career, the thought is never out of Howell’s mind. The importance of that particular major championship is consuming for an Augusta-bred golfer.
Having to follow his peers the past three years from his sofa at home in Orlando, Fla., has been tough to take.
“The Masters is the hardest tournament to miss but it’s one you have to watch on TV,” Howell said. “So I couldn’t get away from it. That made it difficult.”
Howell hasn’t set foot on the property at Augusta National since Friday, April 11, 2008, when he missed the cut.
“It’s a long time not to play your favorite course,” he said.
Having played in seven consecutive Masters until that year, annual spring trips home were easy to take for granted. But Howell struggled through the toughest season of his career in 2008, tumbling in the increasingly important world rankings. He has been fighting to regain his place among the game’s elite ever since.
Without a PGA Tour victory since 2008 or top-50 status in the world, Howell’s avenues back to Augusta National have been limited. His quest to gain late entry has filled his schedule with a constant sense of urgency. It didn’t inspire his best golf.
But after a couple of years searching for a spark with different swing coaches and different equipment, Howell went back to his roots in June 2010 and found the kind of consistency that once made him a fixture on leaderboards. He went back to coach Kevin Smeltz at David Leadbetter’s academy.
“In golf, everybody is looking for a way to get better and improve,” Howell said. “I wanted to go get another opinion and did. It was fine. I played some good golf there. But after a period of time you just sort of know where you belong. Lead and Kevin had known me since I was 10 years old – they know me and my game as well as anybody. Moreso than anything, I just like the consistency of information.”
His consistency on the course has earned him a spot at East Lake.
Howell hasn’t missed a cut since May, a span of 12 starts that includes four top-five finishes. He has finished in the top 25 in 14 events this year and earned more than $2.2 million.
Most importantly, he finished 18th and 31st in the first two events of the tour’s playoff series, securing his Tour Championship berth and Masters invite even before last week’s event at Cog Hill.
“It’s not easy to qualify for this,” Howell said. “You can be in pretty good position going into the playoffs, but if you don’t play well you can get knocked out pretty quick. I knew I was mathematically locked (last week), but at the same time I kept worrying that there could be some weird scenario to line up and I’d end up in that 31st position. Which is why this week feels so much more relaxing than last week for me.”
Howell finished runner-up in his first Tour Championship at East Lake in 2002, so winning in the 30-man field is a strong possibility. But to win the FedEx Cup and $10 million bonus, Howell would not only have to win Sunday but count on a complex series of results involving the top six players, including points leader Webb Simpson finishing 21st or worse.
“I’m 26th so I don’t have much of a chance of winning the FedEx Cup,” he said. “So I’ve got really nothing to lose this week. I’m a lot more relaxed than I’ve been in the past, so it will be a fun week.”
Qualifying for the Tour Championship guarantees Howell a spot in both the U.S. and British Open next year as well, meaning Howell will be more free to concentrate on his game than his results.
That will be a big relief in the buildup to next year’s Masters in that Howell won’t feel like he’s cramming for final exams.
“The motivation will be working towards it rather than finding some back-door way to get into the tournament,” he said.
Howell looks forward to reacquainting himself with Augusta National in the coming months, seeing the new practice facility for the first time as well as other amenities that have sprung up since 2008.
But Howell’s own life has changed as well in the past three years, with his second child due in October. He’ll return more mature and less wide-eyed.
“I’m a bit older now and a bit wiser with my game,” said Howell, 32. “You see things differently when you’ve played quite a few times and had a kid or two. But I can’t wait for the tournament to come around. I certainly hope it feels different. In the past, as fun as the weeks have been because it is the Masters, it’s been really hard. I’m hoping this go round after missing it a few years it will feel different. I’ll definitely have much more appreciation being there.”