Originally created 02/23/03

Charles in charge at Riviera

LOS ANGELES -- Charles Howell III was curious to see how he would respond to his first 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour. The answer was quick and decisive.

His opening tee shot soared into the blue sky over Riviera and split the middle of the fairway on the 503-yard hole, setting up an easy birdie. He followed that with another perfect drive and a 9-iron into 10 feet for his second birdie.

Just like that, his one-stroke lead was up to four, and the Nissan Open turned into a one-man show Saturday.

"As the round went on, I became more and more calm," Howell said after a 3-under 68, giving him a three-stroke lead over Nick Price. "Nothing bothered me."

Howell finished at 11-under 202, and now faces another new experience. He has never led a PGA Tour event going into the final round - the only round that really matters.

"Charlie hasn't been there too often," Price said. "That's the only thing I suppose I have going for me. For him, tomorrow is all about game management."

For Price, who scraped out a 1-under 70 to stay in the hunt, Sunday will be about tracking down a talented young player whom he knows all too well.

They first crossed paths a dozen years ago in Florida, both of them working with swing guru David Leadbetter. The difference was that Price was on the verge of dominating golf, and Howell was a 10-year-old who was so skinny he could barely make a shadow.

Whatever potential Price saw then is staring him right in the face.

"He doesn't look to have any chinks in his armor," Price said. "I'm telling you, the guy has got everything. As he matures, he's going to get better and better. But I think he's pretty darn good right now."

Howell said Price has always been "like a god in my book," from the first time he watched him hit balls in Florida as a kid.

Tiger Woods is the standard that Howell is trying to reach, but he won't have to worry about the world's No. 1 player this week.

Woods hit his opening tee shot into the parking lot - double bogey. He hit another shot left-handed. When he was done, Woods found himself 11 strokes behind, his largest 54-hole deficit since he trailed by 12 at the Memorial last year.

It also was only the second PGA Tour event since 1999 that Woods had two rounds over par. He opened with a 72.

Now for the good news.

He had a bet with caddie Steve Williams that if he didn't make birdie on the 18th, Woods would carry his own bag Sunday. His approach stopped 4 feet in front of the flag, and Woods dropped his club and laughed as Williams ran back to retrieve it.

When his birdie putt went in, Woods led out a sigh.

"I was relieved," he said. "The suffering was over."

Howell plodded along with pars after his big start, then built a five-stroke advantage with a 4-iron from 239 yards into 10 feet on No. 11 for an eagle.

He gave back his only shot by missing the 12th fairway, scrambled when he had to and was aggressive only when Riviera allowed it.

K.J. Choi had a 67 and was alone in third at 206, followed by PGA champion Rich Beem (69) and defending champion Len Mattiace (71).

Howell, who won the NCAA title at Oklahoma State by breaking Woods' record, has improved each season on tour. He was rookie of the year in 2001, won for the first time last year at Kingsmill and is positioned for another big prize.

He has said he won't feel as though he has arrived until he wins a tournament with Woods in the field.

Better yet, he won't have to worry about the world's No. 1 player. Woods offered a rare concession, saying his goal Sunday was to get some momentum going into the Match Play Championship next week.

"Charles has got a pretty good cushion," Woods said. "If he plays the way he's been playing, he'll be just fine."

The Nissan Open is the only tournament that Woods has played at least five times without winning, and that streak will carry on for at least another year.

He was six strokes behind going into the third round, hopeful of closing the gap. Instead, he entertained the gallery with a round Woods might want to forget.

His 3-wood hooked so sharply to the left that it sailed out of bounds toward the tennis courts at Riviera, and the clang of his ball bouncing off the television trucks could be heard from some 275 yards away.

"I got stuck, then I flipped it," Woods said. "Instead of hitting it into the second fairway, I hit it into the parking lot."

He figured he had 17 holes to get it back, but those weren't much better. He made three straight birdies around the turn, but then hit under the trees and had to play a shot left-handed back to the 13th fairway.

Howell had a few adventures, but recovered nicely. Aggressive to the very end, he went after a tough pin on No. 15 and found the bunker, but saved par with a 7-foot putt.

"He's putting so well," Price said. "That's what is going to be tough tomorrow."

Divots: Several players who missed the cut decided to hit balls on the range at Riviera instead of going to La Costa, site of the Match Play Championship. Among them was David Toms, who noticed the galleries shifting along the fairways and said, "I hate being out here." Toms missed the cut for the second straight week. ... Woods said he probably would decided sometime next week whether to play in Dubai. ... David Duval had four birdies on the front nine but still was only 1 under for the round.


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