If you’ve looked at the PGA Tour scoreboards lately, you might have noticed the conspicuous absence of the name “Charles Howell III.” It’s like looking at the lineup of Broadway plays and not seeing the show Cats.
Howell, the PGA Tour’s longest-running iron man production, hasn’t played since the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town that ended April 16. By the time he plans to return from a rib injury at the Quicken Loans National at the end of the month, Howell will have missed 10 weeks – eight since he first discovered the stress fracture at the end of April.
“It is like an off-season, but even our off-seasons don’t last eight weeks,” said Howell. “Quite frankly it’s brutal. Especially when you’re playing good golf and I liked the way things were headed and moving. It’s actually really weird. I’ve learned I’m not much of a homebody and enjoy traveling. It’s kind of good in another way because it makes me miss the golf and I’m excited to come back. Historically I haven’t played my best golf in the summer and now I’m getting to come back refreshed and ready to go again. So maybe that will help me have a nice summer.”
Howell averaged 28.7 starts per season in his first 16 years on the PGA Tour, seven times making at least 30 official starts. Nobody has been a more consistent, full-throttle competitor on tour for such an extended period as the Augusta native.
This is the second consecutive year that Howell has been sidelined for two months of the summer. Last July, he withdrew as first alternate from the British Open to come to Augusta to have surgery to remove a non-cancerous mass in his neck. Like this season, Howell had been cruising along all year inside the top-30 on the season-long points race to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake. When he returned just in time for the playoffs, he’d fallen to 39th and was unable to climb back into the top 30.
This year, Howell’s game was in even better shape. Before the injury, he had made 15 consecutive cuts dating back to last October, posting nine top-15 finishes including a runner-up at Torrey Pines. At the end of the Heritage, he ranked 18th in the FedEx Cup standings and No. 64 in the world rankings. Sitting idle, he’s slipped to 26th and 73rd in both rankings.
While the injury obviously derailed Howell’s momentum, he understands it could have been worse. He plans to return at full speed, hoping to play both the British Open and PGA Championship in a full schedule the rest of the season.
“I’m really lucky my FedEx Cup ranking is holding in there pretty well actually and my world ranking is holding up in there, too, for a chance to get a spot in the British Open,” he said.
Howell isn’t sure how his injury happened, but it struck him while he was hitting balls at home.
“I started to feel it a little bit at Harbour Town, but I thought I had just sort of pulled a muscle in my chest or whatever,” he said. “I didn’t really think anything much of it. I was home the next week practicing a bunch getting ready for Wells Fargo and (The Players) about a week into practicing after Harbour Town and I hit a shot and it just felt like someone stuck a knife up in my back. But as a golfer who’s never been injured, I just felt you’ll hit through this and I hit two or three more balls and it wasn’t changing. So my next stop that afternoon was in an MRI tube to see what in the world it was. It was a stress fracture of the rib.”
It’s the same injury that sidelined another local golfer, Scott Brown, at the end of last year, so Howell reached out to Brown for advice.
“He’s been awfully nice sort of walking me through what he learned from it,” Howell said. “It’s a test of patience, I know that. Obviously it’s going a little slower than I want it to, but that’s a function of being 37 and not 21 anymore.”
Howell has been cautious, especially seeing Rory McIlroy relapse after returning from a rib injury this season. He hasn’t hit any shots longer than 50 yards since his injury, but has continued to chip and putt during his rehabilitation.
“My short game will either be really good when I come back or it will be terrible from over practice,” he said. “I’ve made sure to err on the side of caution to hopefully let this thing heal up.”
Before the injury, Howell seemed well on his way to securing a spot in the Tour Championship, which would qualify him for every major in 2018 including his hometown Masters Tournament. The last time he played in all four majors was 2012 by qualifying for East Lake in 2011. He hasn’t competed in any major since the 2015 PGA.
“Anything to get in the Tour Championship,” he said is his primary goal. “To finish top 30 makes the whole next year’s schedule set. That is so important. I was up to 62-ish in the world ranking. If you’re not going to be top-50 in the world rankings, the most important thing is finishing top 30 in the FedEx somehow. If I’m healthy and ready to go I’ll play a ton of golf between now and the end of the year trying to do everything I can to get in that Tour Championship.”