LAS VEGAS -- When he began the year needing sponsor exemptions just to get into tournaments, Charles Howell III's goal was simply to earn enough money so he could play a full year on the PGA Tour.
That year is almost over, and Howell's goals have changed. Now he has the Tour Championship and a berth in the Masters in his sights.
Howell begins play Wednesday in the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas with a chance at a remarkable feat. He could become the first nonmember of the PGA Tour to win enough money to get into the top 30 and make the elite Tour Championship field.
Not only that, but the 22-year-old former NCAA champion is also on the verge of playing his way into the Masters in his hometown of Augusta, Ga.
It's pretty heady stuff for someone who started the year after a bitter experience in qualifying school without any guarantees he would still be playing by now.
"It's not easy to play your way out here, obviously," Howell said. "I think a lot of incentive I had was the fact after the tour school last year, and tour school is not fun at all. I think that was a lot of incentive and motivation, as well to not have to do that again."
Howell misunderstood the rules last year after he won the NCAA title as a junior at Oklahoma State and immediately turned pro. He played 13 tournaments and earned $263,313, enough to finish 145th on the money list.
Howell figured that was enough to get him into the final stage of Q-school, but a rule change meant it wasn't. He found out about the rule change two days before the second stage of qualifying, and missed making the final by two shots.
"It's not a good experience," he said. "You go there expecting to make it through and if you do make it through, that's what you are expected to do. If you don't, then you failed."
Howell hasn't failed this year, making enough money with his seven sponsor exemptions to earn unlimited exemptions for the rest of the year. He's used those to finish in the top 10 in five tournaments and earn $1,373,016, enough to put him 36th on the money list if he had regular tour member status.
Just as important, a third-place tie at the Michelob Championship last week moved Howell up to 50th in the world rankings, the spot he needs to hold to earn an invitation into the Masters.
"That will be huge," Howell said. "Being from Augusta obviously I want to play there. That's the reason I'm playing as much as I was, having the Tour Championship as a goal, but also for the Masters."
Howell has three tournaments left to try to get into the top 30 and make the Tour Championship. The five-day Las Vegas tournament is a good place to start with a $4.5 million purse that pays $810,000 to the winner.
"It's getting closer," Howell said. "I need to have another top five finish coming in, but obviously every one you get helps."
Howell isn't the only one with some money goals here. Last year, Billy Andrade salvaged a dismal season and retained his tour card with a win here, and the tournament annually propels some borderline players into the top 125 and allows them to keep their cards.
John Daly has his sights set a little higher, hoping like Howell to get an invitation to the Masters with a strong finish to his season.
Daly, who finished second last week at the German Masters, turned down a $75,000 guarantee to play in the World Match Play championship in England to play in Las Vegas.
Daly, who did not qualify for the Masters this year for the first time in 10 years, is 66th on the money list and needs to get into the top 40 to get an automatic Masters invitation.
"Playing the Masters has been my goal all year," Daly said. "I only have four more tournaments left."
The five-day Las Vegas tournament is missing Tiger Woods again. Woods won his first tournament here in 1996 and played again a year later, but has not entered since, despite spending a lot of time in this gambling city.
Also missing is Phil Mickelson, who finished second to Andrade last year. Mickelson's wife, Amy, is expecting a child.