Suffice it to say that in all the dreams Charles Howell has had regarding the Masters, he never expected his first weekend appearance to be anything like this.
Hitting range balls in the rain at 6:15 a.m. Playing 27 holes on Saturday. Starting off on the 10th hole twice. Playing with a noncompeting club member. Finishing up in front of galleries resembling the John Deere Classic more than a major championship.
"The whole day was different," Howell said after his third-round 71 left him tied for 29th at 2-over and paired with two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer for the final round. "Jesper Parnevik was joking with me on the range this morning saying, 'I bet this isn't how you envisioned your first Masters being."'
Local knowledge tells him it's a weird year at the Masters.
"It never rains in Augusta for this many days straight," Howell said. "Obviously this is my first Masters, but I don't think anybody is used to Augusta National being this wet and soft. I've grown up watching so many Masters to see where to hit it and not to hit it and all of the sudden I'm flying it at flags."
Rain left the Masters a bit discombobulated Friday and forced Howell to play nine holes in the morning to qualify for the cut. A pair of birdies at Amen Corner on holes 11 and 13 gave him the cushion he needed to survive two closing bogeys that made him the last player to slip into the final rounds.
A chip-in birdie on 11 proved critical.
"That was unbelievable because that was not the spot to miss that green," Howell said. "It hit the pin and went in. I guess that's an Augusta bounce. In the end I needed it, so that was nice getting a couple of birdies there."
It got even more weird in the afternoon when Howell again went off last and again began on the 10th hole. The Masters hasn't sent players off split tees since 1982 when Charles was only 2 years old. In those days, going off last in consecutive rounds would have meant better things, since the Masters used to re-pair after the first round.
"Growing up in Augusta and watching it so much, you never see guys going off of No. 10," he said. "And obviously people are split when it comes to who they're watching."
With the leaders on the opposite nine at the same time as Howell, his galleries were limited. Only a smattering of applause greeted his near ace on the par-3 sixth hole, when Howell's tee shot hit a couple of feet behind the cup and spun back over the lip. His caddie, Bobby Conlan, had to talk Howell into hitting an 8-iron there instead of a 7.
"There were not a lot of people there to see it," he said.
Odder still was Howell's playing partner. For the second time this season, Howell played a tournament round on one of the top three American golf courses with an Augusta National member named John Harris.
Howell and John W. Harris of Charlotte, N.C., were partners in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February. In Saturday's third round, Howell played with John O. Harris of Minneapolis, Minn., as a noncompeting marker.
"It was nice playing with John Harris because I've played a lot of amateur golf with him," Howell said of the 1995 U.S. Amateur champ. "We've been friends for awhile and get along well. I don't think there's a third John Harris here."
Howell came into the tournament believing that he could defy the odds and win as a Masters rookie. He enters the final round with simpler goals.
"I'd like to play really good," he said. "I'd like to slip in the top 16 and be exempt for next year, which would be awesome. I think that's probably the best thing I can shoot for."
His dreams and reality will be more closely aligned when order is restored on the grounds today.
"It's Sunday at Augusta," he said. "It doesn't get any better."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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