Charles Howell's heart was beating fast. He can't remember what emotions he felt. He could only remember what he told himself as he stared down at the 3 most important feet he's had to cover in a very long time.
"I said a prayer before I hit the putt: 'It's time, let's go in,'" Howell said.
With the last in a remarkable string of six consecutive putts that disappeared into the cup, Howell exorcised a host of demons that haunted him for much of the past 4 years, 4 months and 12 days. After a few tears of relief on the 14th green where he beat Phil Mickelson in sudden death at the Nissan Open, Howell told reporters Sunday at his post-victory news conference that the end of his drought left him "speechless" and "truly beyond words."
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world right now," he said.
Certainly luck played a hand in Mickelson not converting repeated opportunities at Riviera to close out his second consecutive victory. But Howell ultimately made his own good fortune.
Howell was prepared to run his luckless streak of runner-up finishes to double digits since his previous victory at a now defunct tournament in October 2002. Four strokes down with eight holes to go, Howell would have been content with his third second-place finish in five starts this season and fourth since September.
"If you look at the state of where my golf game was in the middle of last summer, I would have cut my arm off for a second-place finish," Howell said. "They were looking pretty darn good. I kept looking at it as I'm getting closer, I'm getting closer."
Over the past 1,596 days, Howell transformed from one of the most promising young players in the world to one of the most puzzling and back again. He has suffered criticism on everything from his mechanical tendencies to his short-game deficiencies to his poor closing proclivities.
The longer his drought ran, the more doubts grew.
"There's a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there," Howell said. "There's a lot of people that have a lot of opinions. I just sort of had to remind myself this off-season, the only opinion that mattered was my own."
One esteemed international golf writer took a particularly hostile swipe at Howell only a few weeks ago when he saw that the 27-year-old was ranked ninth - the highest American - on a Sports Illustrated list of the top 12 players in the world under the age of 30.
"And even that was a stretch, given how reliable Charles Howell is when faced with a putt that really counts down the stretch," the journalist wrote. "Watch carefully: he always misses."
Howell certainly changed a lot of opinions Sunday as he made every putt that mattered down the stretch to first reel in Mickelson and then win in the playoff. He one-putted seven of his last eight holes, including all three for par in sudden death. He drained a 25-footer for birdie on the par-3 14th in regulation to create hope. He sank a 35-footer on No. 16 to close the gap. He two-putted from 45 feet on the fringe for birdie on 17 to tie the leader. He dropped an agonizing 8-footer on 18 to force Mickelson to work for it.
"That was the longest par putt I've hit in my life," Howell said. "Even if I didn't win the golf tournament, to hole the putt to get into playoff - those are stepping stones that I need to continue improving and working on my game."
More stepping stones immediately followed. On the first playoff hole he got up-and-down, sinking an even more paralyzing 6-footer to extend the playoff. His up-and-down from 80 feet after hitting off a cart path on No. 10 - the second playoff hole - was all-world. Then the little 3-footer to finish it off a hole later was only weighted down by 4 years of frustration.
It seemed fitting that it happened in this place - Riviera - where Howell was so close to making himself one of the top 10 players in the world but instead developed a reputation for missing clutch putts and failing in clutch situations. In a sense, Howell picks up where he left off on Feb. 23, 2003, when the playoff loss to eventual Masters Tournament winner Mike Weir bumped him to his highest world ranking of No. 15.
Sunday's win over the reigning Masters champ moved Howell back to 16th in the world and No. 1 on the money list for the first time in his career. Those numbers not only assure him of achieving his primary goal in 2007 - earning an invitation back to the Masters - but position him among the top contenders. Considering he finished last in the field of 90 starters in 2006, Howell could conceivably go from worst to first in the event that means more to him than any other.
"I can only improve from last year's performance," he said.
Still only 27, Howell keeps improving. His perseverance over the past 12 months in particular shows his mettle and his faith in himself and those closest to him.
"I've hung in there well, and you know I've got so many people to thank for hanging in there with me from obviously my family - my wife, and my mom and dad - to David Leadbetter," Howell said of his support group that "never thought I was crazy."
"This game can beat you up pretty good and you see a lot of guys never recover and never come back from it. I just got great people around me to help get me out of that."
Sunday proved Howell is fully recovered and moving forward. A final-round 65 proved he could close against a world-class leaderboard. He proved he could make the clutch putts under trying circumstances. He proved he could win in a playoff, where he'd failed twice before. He proved that all of the short-game labor he put in over the off-season is paying dividends.
"I try not to go back and put milestones with results because results are quite frankly difficult to control. I put milestones and things of that nature on what I'm doing, how I feel I am progressing. ... I thought this off-season, with the work I did, I really made a nice turnaround. I didn't necessarily know I was going to come out and finish second at Sony Open and second at the Buick (Invitational). But I definitely felt this off-season was my best so far of all of my years professional."
And Howell's best is yet to come.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TWICE AS NICE
It took Charles Howell nearly twice as long to win his second PGA Tour event than it did his first. Here's a comparative breakdown dating back to the day he played his first professional round on June 29, 2000, at the Greater Hartford Open:
|TO WIN NO. 1||CATEGORY||TO WIN NO. 2|
* - includes one withdrawal
A LONG STRANGE TRIP
Since winning the 2002 Michelob Championship, Howell had finished runner-up nine times before beating Phil Mickelson on the third playoff in the Nissan Open on Sunday:
|2002||Tour Championship||Vijay Singh|
|2003||Nissan Open||Mike Weir*|
|2003||Tour Championship||Chad Campbell|
|2004||Booz Allen Classic||Adam Scott|
|2005||Buick Invitational||Tiger Woods|
|2006||Zurich Classic of New Orleans||Chris Couch|
|2006||84 Lumber Classic||Ben Curtis|
|2007||Sony Open in Hawaii||Paul Goydos|
|2007||Buick Invitational||Tiger Woods|
|2007||Nissan Open||Charles Howell*|
* - Playoff