PALM HARBOR, Fla. — It’s the season of bubbles, and nobody knows that better than golfer Charles Howell.
“I seem to find myself on these bubbles this time of year,” said Howell of all the various thresholds he’s chasing to earn a return to his hometown Masters Tournament.
The “big dance” for Howell is always a return date at Augusta National, where he has only qualified to play once since 2008. To get there in the next month, he needs to either win a tournament or climb into the top 50 a week before the Masters.
“I’ve done more research in the world ranking system as of late to figure out how that system works,” Howell said. “It kind of feels like trying to understand healthcare laws a little bit. I know I need to play well and play well often if I want to get to Augusta.”
His case could only be strengthened by qualifying to play in the two high-value World Golf Championship events clustered so close before Augusta on the schedule.
The only thing that could have kept Howell out of last week’s WGC event in Mexico was both Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland finishing top-five at the Honda Classic, bumping him outside the top 10 from his No. 9 perch in the FedEx Cup standings. Fowler and Woodland, naturally, finished 1-2 to burst that bubble and drop Howell to 11.
“It would have been really nice to get into Mexico and it was kind of a bummer to miss out on that,” Howell said. “It was kind of a shock that could only happen in the game of golf. You look at all the guys up there and a tough golf course and a bunch of wind … such is life.”
His next bubble approaches. Howell is currently ranked No. 65 in the world, and the top 64 after Sunday earn a spot in the WGC Match Play in two weeks. Fortunately for Howell, several high profile withdrawals should help his cause.
“I probably should get into that and that would be a nice boost to help me get to Augusta because you’ve got to play those bigger events for the world ranking points,” he said. “That’s what’s on mind right now to try to figure out a way to get there.”
Howell has been on a relative tear since slipping outside the top 100 in the world last October. Starting at the PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas in November, Howell posted top-15 finishes in seven consecutive tour events through Riviera, including a runner-up at Torrey Pines.
“I feel like I’m in a better place,” Howell said after posting an opening-round 67 to once again place himself in the hunt at the Valspar Championship. “I’m actually more excited about my game now than I have been at this time in years past. Unfortunately I dug myself a hole to start this (season) to get out of.”
Now 37 years old and ranked No. 21 on the all-time money list with $32.3 million in career earnings despite only two PGA Tour victories, Howell has reached a comfortable rhythm with his career. His two children are old enough to be in school, so he travels less often with family. That allows him to concentrate more exclusively on his game when he’s on the road.
“Oddly enough with my kids being in school and not traveling full-time any more, I’ve played less and when I’ve been out here I need to do my best to make it worthwhile,” he said. “It’s nothing I’ve done differently.”
Sitting at 4-under with two rounds remaining at the Copperhead Course, Howell will not take a week off until the final Masters bubble has come and gone at the end of the Houston event.
Howell is not the only local vying for a Masters berth. Augusta resident Wesley Bryan, a former South Carolina golfer, has ascended to 78th in the world after consecutive fourth-place finishes at Riviera and PGA National.
Bryan, a PGA Tour rookie, is right in the mix again at the Valspar Championship after consecutive 68s at Innisbrook.
“It’s always good being in contention headed to the weekend,” Bryan said. “I have to keep my head down and keep doing what I have been doing to get me to this point. As far as the Masters goes, good play takes care of everything. If I play well the next few weeks, I’ll be there. And if I don’t, then I’ll be there next year.”
A solo third-place finish this week could move Howell as high as No. 51 in the rankings and Bryan as high as 56th, while a runner-up would be enough to jump both into the top 50. A top 10 might be enough to get Howell in the top 60 as he chips away at his goal.
“I’ve still got three or four events to try to work my way into the Masters,” he said.