ATLANTA - Tiger Woods to Charles Howell as they locked claws on the interview podium after Sunday's Tour Championship:
"See ya, dude!"
Indeed, he will.
Howell has risen to the level of his competition. Playing in the final twosome in the final round of the final tournament of the PGA Tour season, Howell is finally where he belongs.
There he was Sunday at East Lake, pushing Vijay Singh with a backside 5-under-par 30 to finish second by two shots. There he was, for the first time as a pro, playing in the final pairing with a two-time major winner while the game's preeminent stars walked in the twosome just in front.
You half expected to see the 23-year-old Augusta native pinching himself as he walked the course where Bobby Jones learned the game.
"Today is what I have dreamed of forever," Howell said. "Apart from walking up the 18th green here and winning, this is all I could ever ask for. To play in the last group of the Tour Championship, with Tiger and Phil Mickelson right in front of me and alongside Vijay, I could not have asked for anything more. I could have keeled over on the 18th green and died a happy man. To play among these people ... it doesn't get any better than that for me."
Don't sell yourself short, kid. If the last month is any indication, it gets a lot better for Howell. In his last four events, he's collected his first victory, shot 16 consecutive rounds under 70, cashed $1.44 million in earnings and surged into ninth place on the final PGA Tour money list with $2.7 million in 2002.
Howell is guaranteed a spot in every major next year and has moved into the top 10 of the Presidents Cup standings. In a more private conversation with Woods recently, the No. 1 player in the world assured Howell he will be his partner in future team events because Tiger is "tired of losing."
"We've all known he has the talent to win out here," Woods said Sunday. "He just needed that shot of confidence."
Mickelson said he expects a lot of weekend company from Howell henceforth.
"It's hard not to expect that level of play out of him because he seems to play that way every week," Mickelson said.
True enough. Nobody else shot sub-par every day this week on a tough East Lake course. Nobody else forced Singh to pucker up down the stretch. Howell fired 66 despite going out in 1-over on the front nine. It would have required a course record 63 to win it outright, so you can forgive him the satisfaction with a second-place check.
"Playing up around players like Tiger and Phil and Vijay, it's not easy," Howell said. "I was a lot less nervous than I thought I would be. I was hardly nervous at all, which was unusual. Vijay was great to play with. I probably would have been more nervous playing with Phil or Tiger."
We'll find out soon enough how nervous he gets in the immediate company of greatness. Howell shared 12th place with Woods at this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. At the Tour Championship he finished better than Tiger for the first time in a medal-play event.
"To give it a run to win this tournament, it's been fun," Howell said. "I hope I have many more years like this one."
A man is judged by the company he keeps. The best better get used to keeping company with Howell.
See ya, dude!
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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