If it seems like half a lifetime ago since Charles Howell went head-to-head against Tiger Woods in a major match, that’s because it was.
It was more than 16 years ago, in August 1996, when a barely turned 17-year-old Howell faced Woods in the quarterfinal of the U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. Howell was a bespectacled senior at Augusta’s Westminster and the AJGA junior golfer of the year making his first big impression on the golfing public.
Woods, of course, was already a growing legend vying for an unprecedented third consecutive U.S. Amateur title.
Despite twice evening the match on the front side, Howell succumbed 3-and-1 on the 17th hole as Woods continued his historic conclusion to his amateur career.
“Well, I didn’t lose 10-and-8 so I’m happy,” Howell said after that match.
The intervening years haven’t dulled his memory.
“At that age and that point in time it was so overwhelming playing Tiger Woods,” Howell said on Sunday. “I know I hung in there well, but at the end of the day it was going to be a tall task to beat him.”
Today at Dove Mountain in Arizona, Howell gets another crack at his old friend in the first round of the WGC Match Play Championship. The odds against him haven’t gotten much smaller.
“Obviously drawing Tiger in the first round you’ve got your hands full,” Howell said. “But golf is a crazy game and you never know until you play.”
That amateur match 16-plus years ago set in motion an expectation level that Howell has struggled to live up to since. He was declared by many to be “the next Tiger” when he turned professional after winning the 2000 NCAA title by a record margin. In his 14th season on tour, he’s 24th all-time in career earnings but with only two victories and zero major challenges.
Woods, on the other hand, has won 75 times on tour including 14 majors since their Pumpkin Ridge encounter.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that many years,” Howell said. “Furthermore, what that guy has done in those 17 years is incredible.”
From the beginning, Howell has had a healthy respect for Woods. On the morning of their amateur match, Howell rallied from two holes down to Patrick O’Brien with five to play and advanced by draining a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole.
“I mean, I was so happy to make the putt but at the same time I was about to throw up because you know I had to play Tiger that afternoon,” Howell told the Golf Channel in 2001. “I wanted to beat him so bad you can’t imagine. … I was probably a little bit too star struck and probably paying too much attention to his game than I should have been doing.”
The stardust has dissipated as Howell and Woods have grown closer since, partnering in the Presidents Cup matches in 2003 and playing many friendly games at Isleworth near Orlando, Fla., before Woods moved recently to South Florida. A few years ago, Howell admitted that he never remembered beating the ultra-competitive Woods even in their casual matches.
But that means little today over 18 holes in forecasted foul weather. Howell ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in scoring average this season and has made more birdies on tour this year than any player in the field.
“I’ve got nothing to lose in this match,” Howell said. “He’s obviously the No. 2 ranked player in the world and I barely slipped in. It is a bit different to play a match with nothing to lose and everybody expects him to win the match. Get hot and make a bunch of birdies, who knows what will happen? If you had said at the beginning of the year, ‘Charles you’ll get in the Match Play but you have to play Tiger,’ I’d take it.”
Howell started the year ranked No. 117 in the world and was one of only four players to climb from outside the top 100 to the top 64 for the field. He began the season with 16 consecutive rounds of par or better and three consecutive top 10s in Hawaii (T3), Palm Springs (T2) and Torrey Pines (T10). He missed a 5-foot putt on the 72nd hole that could have won the Humana Challenge and secured his place in his beloved hometown Masters Tournament, but instead lost in a playoff to Brian Gay and continues to chase a top-50 berth into the field.
“I’m glad to be in this golf tournament, because at the start of the year I was a long way from qualifying for this thing,” he said. “It hopefully inches me a little closer toward Augusta in the grand scheme of things.”
Upsetting Woods and winning a couple of matches this week could go a long way to helping secure that goal. These are potential “bonus” world ranking points for him. So would qualifying for the next WGC in Doral, which he needs to remain in the top 10 in the PGA Tour’s season points race after next week’s tournament at PGA National to achieve. Howell currently ranked seventh.
But like he did 16 years ago in his first appearance on television in the shadow of Tiger, Howell will get a chance to showcase his current good form and get himself back in the national conversation.
“It’s extremely difficult to predict how well we’re going to play,” Howell said. “With the start I’ve had this year, this is everything I’d hoped for. This is the most consistent I’ve played for this amount of time.”
Keep it up another day and Howell can turn back the clock and start rewriting the ending.