PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — For some golfers the Florida Swing means the Masters Tournament is just around the corner. For Augusta native Charles Howell it means his hometown major is just out of reach.
For the fifth time in six years, Howell enters spring chasing his dream major with a sense of desperation. With six weeks to go before the Masters, it’s pretty much win something or stay home for Howell.
“Of course always in the back of my mind is the Masters, so I think that’s always a little bit of incentive,” Howell said of the early season marathon that’s become an almost annual ritual for him.
Howell played in seven consecutive Masters from 2002-08 before hitting the proverbial treadmill of the rank-and-file players outside the top 50 in the world. Only once since has Howell returned to play Augusta, earning a spot in 2012 after qualifying for the previous season’s Tour Championship. He finished 19th, making three birdies in the last four holes to finish two shots out of a guaranteed return invitation as a top-16 finisher.
So he was back to the treadmill in 2013 and made a furious early season run. Starting the year outside the top 100, Howell posted six top-17 finishes from January through March to climb as high as 54th in the world at the deadline for 11th-hour top-50 qualifiers. His most frustrating missed opportunity was a playoff loss to Brian Gay at the Humana Challenge, where Howell three-putted the 72nd hole with a chance to win.
Now he’s on another top-10 tear that has him hovering in the 70s of the world rankings since October. He entered this week’s Honda Classic ranked 73rd after snapping a streak of 12 consecutive made cuts two weeks ago at Riviera.
In 11 starts of the wraparound 2013-14 PGA Tour season, Howell has five top-10 finishes.
“I enjoy my practice time in the offseason and preparing and getting ready,” Howell said of his penchant for fast starts. “So I’m ready to play when I come out and really enjoy the courses on the West Coast and the Florida Swing.”
At age 34, Howell remains one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent players annually. He ranks 25th all-time on the career money list with nearly $27 million in earnings in 14 years as a professional. He has 14 runner-up and eight third-place finishes, but only two victories.
It has been seven years since Howell won his last tournament at Riviera in 2007, beating Phil Mickelson in a playoff.
Howell averages 29 starts per season and has no plans to cut back anytime soon.
“I enjoy playing. I’m a golfer. I play golf for a living, and it’s just what I do,” he said. “If I stay home I’m (going to) play golf, so … Some guys are comfortable doing that, but if you look across the whole tour most guys don’t. We’re golfers.”
Cutting back on scheduling has become any increasingly popular trend, with top-tier stars such as Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson doing it with great success. Despite evidence that Howell usually plays better coming out of breaks when he has devoted time to working on his game instead of chasing checks each week, Howell isn’t inclined to experiment with something new until his children – ages 3 and 2 – get older.
“I’m young, still … ish,” he said with a chuckle. “No issues with the body, knock on wood. So I can still play. But there’s going to come a day when the kids are not traveling with me and they’re in school so that will determine my schedule. If I didn’t think I was ready I would stay home and practice more. But in this game, how do you ever know when you’re ready? It’s a hard game to say I’m going to peak on X amount of weeks.”
So Howell hopes to peak at least once before April – if not this week at PGA National then in two weeks at Innisbrook or the week after at Bay Hill.
Last year, Honda provided a great opportunity when Howell sat in second place early in the final round. Had he maintained a top-five finish he would have slipped into the top 50, but he blew up in the winds to shoot 9-over on his final 13 holes to fall to 29th.
In the breezy afternoon Thursday, two late bogeys left Howell 2-over and tied for 101st. He’ll need a big morning round to have a chance to chase more world ranking points on the weekend.
Howell tries not to obsess about the Masters and stay in the moment.
“I’d love to play in the golf tournament, but so would every other person breathing on this planet,” Howell said. “So I think about it and then it’s out of my mind and I’m more worried about the golf tournament I’m playing.”
The annual Augusta race only gets more desperate with each passing week.