Originally created 02/23/03

Howell's ready to find out

LOS ANGELES - Nothing's changed.

Charles Howell planned a nice, quiet dinner with his wife Heather. He'd call his swing instructor, David Leadbetter. He'd call his sports psychologist, Jim Fannin. He'd go to bed at a decent time.

A Saturday night as grooved as his pre-shot routine.

"Having the 54-hole lead is not what I thought it would be," Howell said. "I thought it would be more nerve-wracking."

Maybe that comes this morning, when he walks to the Riviera Country Club first tee three shots up on Nick Price and four better than K.J. Choi in the Nissan Open. It's new territory for the Augusta native who's waited 23 years to be in this position.

What kind of front-runner is he?

"We'll find out," he said.

As a professional, Howell has led a tournament in progress only once, and that was after the first round of last year's Reno-Tahoe Open. He came from two strokes behind to win his only PGA Tour event, the 2002 Michelob Championship. The last tournament he led going into the last day was the 2000 NCAA Championship. Howell won by a record margin.

Tiger Woods is in the field - 11 shots back and conceding defeat. It's Howell's tournament to win or lose. That's not the easiest place to be, and Price knows it.

"Charlie hasn't been there too often," said Price, a 42-time winner worldwide and three-time major champion. "That's one thing I have going for me."

How, you might ask, did Price do the first time he slept on a 54-hole lead?

"It's not an apples to apples comparison," Price said with a laugh. "I wasn't as good as he is."

Price remembers the 1983 World Series of Golf as the hardest third-round lead he ever slept on. Price was 26 at the time.

"It carried a 10-year exemption with it, and that was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me," Price said. "I know I didn't sleep well that night. Besides, I had Nicklaus, Aoki, Floyd, Irwin...all the guys I looked up to and admired chasing me."

For the record, Price beat Jack Nicklaus by four shots that day for his first of 18 PGA Tour victories.

Now Howell is being pursued by a golfer he's admired since first meeting him on the driving range 13 years ago. A man he calls "a god in my life."

Price's expert advice to a rookie front-runner is simple: Putt out on No. 18 Saturday and pick up at the first tee Sunday. Any time spent fretting in between is useless energy.

"The more you leave your game at the golf course, the better you are," he said. "Don't worry about what tomorrow is going to bring."

His peers believe Howell is up to the task. He has a maturity that exceeds his years. He plays the course aggressively, but not recklessly. He has a game suited for a Riviera course that is unlikely to yield anything astonishingly low.

Howell is the only player in the field to break 70 all three rounds. He ranks fourth in the field in greens in regulation and ninth in putting.

Even a man with a 27-2 record as a front-runner would put his money on Howell today.

"I don't expect him to come back," said Woods of Howell. "Not the way he's playing."

Said Price: "I think he'll sleep pretty well. He doesn't look to have any chinks in his armor."

He certainly didn't reveal any Saturday when he got calmer as the round wore on. He started with consecutive birdies, eagled the par-5 11th to expand his advantage to five strokes and gave only one shot back at the difficult 12th by missing the fairway and green to set up his only bogey in 39 holes.

"So as far as sleeping on a 54-hole lead, I still have to play a good round (today) whether I have a three-shot lead or I'm three shots behind," Howell said. "I still have to play good to win the tournament."

Howell made a pact in his mind not to let anything rattle him. Not the course. Not even Tiger.

Steady. Ready.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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