It was 17 years ago in late June when I first met Charles Howell and was convinced I’d seen the future of golf.
The reigning NCAA champion was playing his final event as an amateur in the Buy.com Greensboro Open at Sedgefield Country Club. He’d just shot his second low-round of the tournament 63 and was anxiously waiting near the pool to see if the only player ahead of him on the leaderboard, Kent Jones, could hang on.
“Yes sir, I paid attention to it,” the unfailingly polite 20-year-old Howell said of his Sunday surge up the leaderboard. “I was hoping to get close to them and get my name up there to where they could see it.”
Howell finished runner-up – at the time breaking Sergio Garcia’s record set two year’s before at the same event for the highest ever finish by an amateur on the PGA Tour’s top developmental tour.
Little did anyone know this would become the story of Howell’s professional life.
Seventeen years and one week later, Howell lost in a playoff on Sunday to former Clemson golfer Kyle Stanley in the Quicken Loans National at TPC Avenel. It marked the 16th time in 16 years on the PGA Tour that the Augusta native has finished runner-up – the second time this season including at Torrey Pines. It’s his sixth runner-up since beating Phil Mickelson in a playoff at Riviera marking his second tour victory 3,791 days ago.
“It was fun to be back in that position to win a tournament,” Howell said, maintaining his characteristic stiff upper lip in the face of another disappointment. “Obviously would have loved to have won the thing, but you’re excited to get in the mix.”
It’s been a long time since Howell’s name was included among the “young guns” who were expected to set the standard in the Tiger Woods generation. He’s only played in three majors – all PGAs – since 2012, and he still only has one top-10 career major finish with a tie for 10th at the 2003 PGA Championship.
“I play against guys that were born in the mid ’90s now,” he said. “To our generation, 2000 was a couple years ago. I just feel old.”
Yet at age 38, Howell is a professional marvel in his own way. You could argue that he’s the most extraordinary ordinary golfer in history. Despite only two career wins, he ranks 21st on the all-time money list with total earnings of $33.3 million. Nobody ahead of him in the top 20 has fewer than five wins (Luke Donald) and 15 of them have at least 10. Howell’s made the cut in 77 percent of the 490 events he’s played, averaging an enviable $68,000 every week he tees it up.
Fate, however, hasn’t blessed him as often as he would have expected on Sundays. He’s let multiple back-nine leads slip away. Four times he’s lost in playoffs. He’s seen an improbable chip-in on the final hole knock him out of another. He three-putted the 72nd hole missing a 5-footer for a chance to win. He even literally had a ball bounce out of the hole on the 18th green and into a pond at Torrey Pines to cost him another.
“I haven’t won as many tournaments as I wanted to and thought I probably should have,” Howell once admitted. “But I’ve had (a lot of) seconds. Not all of those feel great, you know? I felt those.”
He felt Sunday’s as well. On the same TPC Avenel course where Howell finished runner-up to Adam Scott in the 2004 Booz Allen Classic, Howell made another run after starting the final round in seventh place and four off the lead. An eagle on the drivable 14th hole vaulted him into a share of the lead with playing partner Stanley.
On the 18th hole, Howell had a 21-foot putt to win that looked dead in the hole until it veered over the lip, sending him to his knees in anguish.
“I was really shocked that missed low,” he stammered in a TV interview after it was over. “Maybe some of the moisture on the green … I don’t know. Yeah, no, that was … I thought I made that.”
Bad luck reacquainted itself with him in the playoff, where his drive slightly wide of the fairway nestled down in a bad lie while Stanley’s wildly errant tee shot sat cleanly with a perfect angle. Both missed the green, but Howell’s pitch came up 11 feet short. After missing the par putt, he had to watch another celebration at his expense when Stanley made his 5-footer to win.
“Kyle made a great putt for par there, and obviously we played together today and he played great all day,” Howell said graciously.
Considering Howell had not played in 10 weeks since Harbour Town because of a rib injury and only started hitting balls the week before, it was an encouraging comeback performance. It vaulted him from 33rd to 18th in the season-long FedEx Cup standings, and the top 30 who qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake receive an invitation to the Masters Tournament.
Qualifying for his hometown major, where Howell has played only once since 2008, is always a primary goal for him. He also climbed to 55th in the world rankings, in which he once ranked as high as 15th but hasn’t been inside the top 50 since May 18, 2008.
Howell was asked repeatedly about “punching his ticket to the Open Championship” in two weeks at Royal Birkdale, a stinging reference to a consolation prize that couldn’t feel great when a guaranteed spot at Augusta National was once again so close to his grasp.
“Well, I’m actually thrilled to be in the Open,” he said. “It was a goal of mine to try to sneak in there. … So yeah, it’s a silver lining. Would have loved to have won the tournament, but I’m thrilled to be going back to Birkdale.”
While Howell may “feel old,” he’s still one of the most consistent players in the world and a long, long way from finished.
At this stage, however, he deserves more than silver linings.