That is not a reflection in any way on Howell, who took Woods down for the first time in the first round of the WGC Match Play two weeks ago. Frankly, history indicates that nobody is going to catch Woods, since he’s never blown more than a two-shot lead after 54 holes in an official tour event and he sits four clear on a course he’s won three times before.
So what Howell is playing today is a game of mathematics. With the urgency of his quest to qualify for the Masters Tournament in his hometown increasing with each passing week, the math is all that matters.
Official World Golf Ranking math is not Howell’s favorite subject.
“I don’t know that Aristotle could figure out the world ranking system, so I am far from that,” Howell said Saturday after 3-under 69 left him tied for 13th. “But I know I need to play well.”
Howell has become a big player on Sundays this season. He has consistently been high on leaderboards almost every single week, and the Sunday opportunities have been mounting. He’s played well enough to climb from 117th in the world rankings to start the year to 66th this week, earning him berths in a pair of WGC events that when 2013 opened looked out of reach.
“I wasn’t expecting to get into the World Match Play and this one wasn’t on the schedule either,” said Howell, who has played eight of the last nine weeks on tour. “I played Honda so this is my fourth in a row. These are two bonus events I wasn’t scheduled to play in the beginning of the year.”
With a single-minded goal of reaching the Masters, Howell has been eying that top-50 line of demarcation that can fulfill his Augusta dream. The top-50 deadline ends in three weeks after the Houston tournament, and Howell plans to play only Bay Hill and Houston after Doral.
So the strain keeps getting more intense, yet Howell says the stress is just another motivating factor.
“When there’s a goal out there like trying to qualify for the Masters, I guess it does make it a bit easier because you’re playing for something bigger than just this week,” he said. “In a way that helps.”
Dealing with the Sunday pressure is the key. While Howell might not understand all the permutations that go into the world ranking system he understands the value of posting a low number.
“I would still like that low one to come on Sunday,” he said. “It’s been close but not quite.”
Howell shot 66 in the final round of the season opener in Hawaii, and that was enough to move him one spot up the leaderboard into a tie for third.
The next week he shot 64 in the Palm Springs desert to get himself into a playoff. But by missing a 5-footer on the last hole of regulation, Howell let slip his guaranteed Masters ticket and ended up in the same tie for second where he started the day.
At Torrey Pines, he shot even-par 72 and remained tied for ninth just as he started the final round.
Last week, however, Sunday was a Howell killer and showed just how valuable the math can be.
Howell started the final round of the Honda Classic tied for fifth, with the wind making it unlikely that anyone would make a major move up the leaderboard with a low score on PGA National. It was a day when holding serve and getting away with pars would be precious.
What Howell wouldn’t have paid for the 70 that fellow Augusta golfer Vaughn Taylor shot that Sunday. Even par would have actually moved Howell inside the top 50 with a two-way tie for third place.
Instead, Howell went 9-over in his last 13 holes to shoot 78 and fell 24 spots to tied for 29th. Instead of moving right onto the Masters bubble, he slipped two spots to 66th.
“I’m upset any time I play bad, but after that you’ve just got to move on,” Howell said. “It was a hard day but no excuse to shoot 78. It wasn’t that hard. I was upset on the drive down here and then moved on.”
Now once again Howell is in position to help himself get closer to his Masters goal. With steady winds forecasted to make the Blue Monster stop playing like the Blue Mouse, Woods is likely well out of reach. But Howell is only three shots out of fifth, and solo fifth would likely be good enough to move him right on top of that golden No. 50 ranking.
“From what I understand the wind’s going to blow so that puts a bit more teeth back into this golf course,” Howell said. “It wasn’t the truest indication the first few days. You can still make birdies out here. This course is a bit more forgiving in the wind (than PGA National).”
Howell knows he can’t afford taking this Sunday off and falling out of the draft. But where last week was an opportunity to just hold his ground, Doral will require more effort to pass a world-class lineup of guys in front of him.
“Something under par will do well,” he said. “I don’t think you can get too terribly aggressive out here when it gets windy because bogeys in this format seem to hurt pretty bad.”
In this kind of math scenario, any plus-ones on the scorecard can prove lethal to a Masters bid.