Coming off a three-week break that unfortunately included declining an invitation to the British Open, Howell heads into today’s first round of the PGA Championship excited about the possibilities ahead in both the next four days and six weeks.
“A lot of times by this time of the year I’m a little bit tired and a little bit ready for the season to wrap up,” said the 35-year-old Augusta native. “But I’ve had three weeks off, which I’ve never had in a season. I’m actually really excited to play again after plenty of time to work on my game and rest.”
Howell had to skip a late invitation to play at Hoylake citing personal reasons that he declined to elaborate.
“It was just something with the family that I needed to be home and address,” he said. “Turned out it wasn’t a big deal in the end, but I just needed to be home. I hated to miss it because it was the British Open and I’ve played quite a few of them.
“Everything worked out well and my mind is clear and I’m just excited to play again. ... Unfortunately in life some things take a little precedence over golf, but I’m excited to be back.”
Howell believes the extra week added to his planned two-week break turned out to be a blessing in disguise with the upcoming PGA Tour playoff series that doesn’t have a built-in week off this season because of the Ryder Cup. Howell plans to play at least the next five consecutive weeks and hopefully six if he’s one of the top 30 players to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake.
Howell was 24th in the FedEx Cup standings after finishing tied for 23rd in his last start at the John Deere Classic. But the three-week break cost him in the standings as he slipped to 31st entering the PGA – sitting on a bubble.
Last year he entered the playoff series 27th in points but failed to finish better than 33rd in three playoff events and missed qualifying for the Tour Championship by five spots. The untimely rut cost him an automatic spot in all four majors this year. The PGA will be his only major for the second consecutive season.
“I’m more rested now and my game is in better shape than it was at this time last year, so hopefully I can use that to my advantage and play well enough to get inside the top 30,” Howell said. “I frankly don’t care if I’m fifth or 30th, just as long as I make it in the top 30. To make it to Atlanta would mean more to me than however I were to do in Atlanta simply because that would get me back in the Masters. And I’d obviously love nothing more than to get back into that tournament.”
Before focusing on that goal, Howell is keen to reverse a different trend in major championships. Valhalla marks his 39th career major appearance and his 14th consecutive PGA start. What limited success he’s had in those majors has typically come in the PGA, including his lone career top-10 finish when he was 10th at Oak Hill in 2003. But he’s missed his past two cuts in the PGA.
Howell believes he’s taken steps with his swing coach, Grant Waite, to address his shortcomings on major stages.
“Historically I don’t think I’ve played as well in the majors because I haven’t driven the ball well enough for four days in a row,” he said. “It’s hard to play out of the rough in majors and it’s an area of my game that Grant and I have spent a ton of time on and it’s improving statistically. So that’s one of the things I’m excited about.”
Valhalla is a big course that isn’t too tight – features that tend to suit Howell’s game. Though he’s never played there before this week, he likes what he’s seen.
“My goal is to enter play on Sunday somewhere inside the top 10 to 12 and see what happens,” he said. “If you’re in 10th or better on Sunday you’ve got a heckuva chance.”
At 35, Howell’s play is more consistent than ever as his nearly $28 million in career earnings reflect (24th all time). He’s posted six top-10 finishes this PGA Tour season and missed only one cut (the Players) since prior to the Masters.
But at an age where some of his heralded classmates such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia have become the game’s elite, Howell still languishes in that no-man’s realm between 50th and 100th in the world (currently 80th) where he’s resided full-time since the middle of 2011.
“I’m at that age where my peers are either – A – losing their card or – B – having a breakthrough in their career,” Howell said. “They’re kind of breaking through one way or the other – up or down. This is a funny part. We all have families now. Every decision doesn’t revolve around golf anymore. I’m really cognizant and aware of that. I’m trying to work and bust my tail because I know, hey, I’m 35 and not 21 anymore and I’m trying to get as much out of it as I can.
“I’m definitely the most consistent that I’ve ever been. With that said, I’d still like to kind of turn the corner where I win a tournament once a year or fairly consistently because ultimately that’s what you get remembered by and that’s what the most important thing is.”
This week could go a long way in changing the conversation about Howell and getting him back into that top-50 status that’s long been expected of him.
“When I ultimately get myself back inside the top 50, it really makes it a lot easier to plan a schedule and play in the bigger events and all the things you need to do to keep the world ranking up there. I still need to turn that corner.”
Perhaps the PGA will provide the fresh restart he’s been waiting for.