SAN FRANCISCO — Emerging from the fog after a cool morning practice round at The Olympic Club on Wednesday, Charles Howell sounded more like a U.S. Open qualifier than a 12-year PGA Tour veteran with 34 majors under his belt.
“It’s good to just be here,” the Augusta native said.
Howell has been a no-show at the U.S. Open for three years since missing the cut at Torrey Pines in 2008. Before that he’d made six consecutive cuts in the national championship since missing his first in his 2001 major debut at Southern Hills.
Howell’s best U.S. Open finish was a tie for 18th in 2002 at Bethpage Black.
It’s a tournament where Howell’s consistency should have the opportunity to thrive. He has missed only three cuts in 16 starts this season, posting five top-20 finishes including a runner-up in Hawaii and a tie for 19th at the Masters Tournament.
“It’s a test of patience and perseverance more than anything,” Howell said of the U.S. Open. “I like the fact that you don’t have to make a lot of birdies and pars work well. Managing your game around here is very important.”
Howell ranks inside the top-100 on tour in just about every category except sand saves and driving accuracy. It’s the latter (53 percent, 158th) that would seem to pose the biggest problem this week. But Olympic’s fairways are so narrow, firm and sloped that remaining in them will be a problem for almost everyone.
“The rough is patchy in spots, where you can actually get the ball to the green,” Howell said. “It’ll be hard to hit (the greens) because they’re so firm and the approaches are firm. But you can bounce the ball up.”
Howell has never played Olympic, and he’s learning like everyone else what makes it one of the toughest in the U.S. Open rotation. After three days of practice, he talked about the idiosyncrasies of the course on the eve of the championship.
“I think it’s a really good golf course and even to slightly over par will probably win,” Howell said. “It’s a heckuva test.”
The part of the course getting the most attention has been the opening six holes, including a whopping 521-yard par-4 “just to get your day started.”
“People talk about that stretch, but I’ve never seen an easy stretch at a U.S. Open,” Howell said. “I think there’s 18 good, hard holes. The first six holes are getting a lot of attention, but there’s really no cupcakes on the back nine either.”
One of those is the 670-yard 16th that ranks as the longest in U.S. Open history.
“I guess 610 yards was just too short,” Howell said.
Overall, Olympic presents an exacting test that Howell is eager to take for the first time in four years.
“There are a few holes that are some birdie holes,” he said, noting the driveable 288-yard seventh hole and the reachable par-5 17th that could yield eagles. “But there are some holes where a bogey is not the end of the world. It’s going to happen for everybody.”